Christensen

Christensen: N.C. isn't in Pope's pocket

Staff WriterOctober 9, 2011 

"State for Sale" reads the headline in the current edition of The New Yorker.

The state is North Carolina. And the person who is doing the buying, according to the article, is Art Pope, the Raleigh businessman, former state legislator and former GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.

The article carried a lot of weight. The New Yorker is a highly respected magazine. Jane Mayer, the author, is one of the best political journalists in the country. As best as I can recall, the last North Carolina political figure to get this kind of in-depth treatment in The New Yorker was the late Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who was profiled by Elizabeth Drew in 1981.

The article made a splash in liberal circles - headlining both The Huffington Post, the Internet newspaper, and "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC.

"In many ways he is the one man who is single-handedly bankrolling a kind of conservative takeover of the state," Mayer told Maddow.

So the question is: Did The New Yorker get it right? Is Pope trying to buy North Carolina, or more precisely, is a multimillionaire trying to buy political control of the state?

He is certainly spending a lot to influence politics and public policy in this state -at least $40 million through his foundation and his network of conservative organizations, according to various estimates.

But I think his critics - and The New Yorker - overstate his influence.

If Pope did not exist, the Republicans would still have likely won control of the legislature last November.

There was a national GOP landslide - a reaction to the bad economy, a backlash against the new health care law, and in North Carolina a response to multiple Democratic scandals.

Pope's groups pumped $2.2 million into 27 races in 2010 - but that is in the context of $30 million spent on the legislative campaign. The Pope money may have helped Republicans at the edges, but it is not clear that Pope's money turned a single election, let alone control of the legislature.

The article lacked context.

The New Yorker article, for example, made it look as though state Sen. John Snow of Murphy was the victim of a Pope-funded assault, when in fact it was one of the most fiercely contested districts in the state in which both sides poured money.

Like earlier machines

Pope's role is repeatedly blown up like one of those helium-filled balloons in the Macy's Day parade in New York.

Pope has assembled a modern influence machine that combines traditional politics, advocacy and sophisticated public relations. But he is no more powerful than was Democratic Senate leader Marc Basnight, who retired last year, or Raleigh lawyer Tom Ellis, who ran Helms' political machine, the Congressional Club, in the 1980s.

Does Pope have the state in his back pocket as the cartoon caricature accompanying The New Yorker article suggests?

North Carolinians are a notoriously independent lot. I don't believe the state is for sale, and I don't think even a very rich man can buy it.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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