Democracy undone by ending funding for NC court races

June 14, 2013 

Liberals have made a cottage industry out of depicting Art Pope as a rich, evil wizard who casts a spell of right-wing ideology over the legislative process. Those who don’t know him might be surprised that he’s pleasant, extremely knowledgeable about state government and doesn’t have horns.

But the heavy political contributor and founder of conservative groups who now serves as Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget director does have influence. And he uses it in ways that – all liberal caricatures aside – should scare people who think government should represent the will of the people instead of the wealthy and corporations.

Pope’s scary side was captured vividly in Friday’s Under The Dome column. It reported that Melissa Price Kromm, director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, witnessed Pope lobbying state Rep. Jonathan Jordan outside the House chambers Tuesday afternoon. The conversation came after Jordan offered a compromise amendment that would have preserved public financing for appellate judicial races by keeping a $50 surcharge paid by lawyers but dropping a voluntary $3 taxpayer checkoff contribution.

Shortly after speaking with Pope, Jordan withdrew the amendment, and the House voted to kill North Carolina’s program of public financing of appellate court elections. Pope said he spoke with Jordan, a former employee of the John Locke Foundation – a group started by Pope and his family – but would not disclose the content of his conversation. He did say he is opposed to giving public dollars to political campaigns.

Jordan, a Republican attorney from Jefferson, is heavily indebted to Pope. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, he received $16,000 from Pope and his family when he was first elected to the House in 2010. Three groups associated with Pope – Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC – gave $91,500 to Jordan’s campaign.

This little tale contains all the elements that make Pope worrisome: His family-funded conservative groups whose former staffers now hold places in the General Assembly and the McCrory administration. His lavish giving through his family and those groups to legislative races. (According to the Institute for Southern Studies, in 2010, Pope’s organizations spent $2.2 million on 22 state legislature races and won 18 of them.) How his political success in those races is being used to stymie the democratic process through gerrymandering – down to the school board level in some cases – and the ending of public funding for judicial races.

Removing the influence of special interests

Taking public funding away from judicial races is particularly grievous. The public knows it’s unhealthy to have judges elected primarily through contributions from those who have business before them. That’s why the public overwhelmingly favors the state program that provides public funding for candidates running for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. Last month, a poll by SurveyUSA found 68 percent of the state’s voters favor the program. Fourteen of the 15 Court of Appeals judges signed a letter supporting it.

Some don’t like public funding for exactly the reason the public supports it: It removes the influence of special interests. That protective effect is now vulnerable to the flood of corporate donations allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The 2012 state Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice Paul Newby and appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV displayed that vulnerability. The $2.6 million independent groups spent in the race overwhelmingly went to Newby. He narrowly won after outspending Ervin nearly 10 to 1, but public financing helped Ervin to stay competitive against special interest money.

A Democratic challenge to the Republican redrawing of legislative and congressional district maps may make it to the state Supreme Court. In that event, Newby could be the deciding vote on an officially nonpartisan court that is nonetheless considered 4-to-3 Republican to Democrat. Thus special interest money spent in Newby’s race could lock in a statewide political design that tilts right largely due to Pope’s decisive role in legislative races.

In North Carolina, the ideal of one person, one vote is giving way to one person who rules the vote. And his name is Art Pope.

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