State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat who represents Durham and Granville counties, spoke to a different senate earlier this month. He was in Washington at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, to testify about the need for a response to what Leahy calls “the corrosive effects of the Supreme Court’s damaging decisions regarding money in politics.”
The hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on whether there should be a constitutional amendment which would allow Congress and the states the authority to set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money in political campaigns.
McKissick said heavy corporate donations have reshaped North Carolina’s political landscape for the worse. He blamed the change on outside money generally and on North Carolina’s Art Pope specifically. That brought a howl of protest from Pope, the wealthy supporter of conservative groups and candidates who now serves as the state budget director. Pope responded by submitting his own testimony for the committee’s official record.
McKissick told the committee that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allowing corporations to support or oppose political candidates with independent communications changed the tone and volume of campaign ads.
“Suddenly, no matter what the race was, money came flooding in. Even elected officials who had been in office for decades told me they’d never seen anything like it,” McKissick testified. “We were barraged by television ads that were uglier and less honest than I would have thought possible. And they all seemed to be coming from groups with names we had never even heard of. But it was clear that corporations and individuals who could write giant checks had a new level of power in the state.”
Much of the funding was connected to Pope, a political benefactor who effectively purchased the power to drive North Carolina to the right, McKissick testified.
“Overall, three-quarters of all the outside money in state races that year were tied to one man: Art Pope,” he said. “Pope and his associates poured money into 22 targeted races, and the candidates they backed won in 18. In 2012, $8.1 million in outside money flooded into the governor’s race – a large portion of which was tied to Mr. Pope. And before he’d even been sworn into office, our new governor announced who would be writing the new state budget: surprise, surprise. It was Art Pope. He could afford to spend lavishly, and he certainly got his money’s worth.”
Pope, a Raleigh resident, is the owner of Variety Wholesalers, a discount store chain, and a former four-term state representative who serves voluntarily as budget director. He’s also chairman of a family foundation that supports various conservative advocacy groups.
Pope bristles at liberals who characterize him as the power behind the throne of Gov. Pat McCrory and mastermind of a Republican takeover of North Carolina. He says that he’s a man called to public service and that his money only helps him be heard.
In his submitted testimony, Pope rebuked the Durham senator for making “the false and outlandish claim that I, Art Pope, a single person, was able to ‘buy our democracy’ in North Carolina, and that an amendment to the United States Constitution is needed so that some people cannot ‘buy’ a legislature or governor’s mansion.”
Pope wrote that McKissick was responding badly to his party’s political defeat. “Worse than simply trying to discredit the winning Republican majority in a state election, state Senator McKissick is now supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to silence his opponents,” he wrote.
Pope said the amount he spends on elections is inflated by critics who cite groups “tied to Art Pope.” He wrote, “It simply is not true that I or my company spent a single million dollars, much less spent millions, plural, of dollars for either the 2010 or 2012 North Carolina elections.” Moreover, he wrote, Democratic and progressive organizations outspent Republicans and conservative groups in the 2010 state elections.
Pope’s objections aside, McKissick said he received an outpouring of favorable responses to his June 3 testimony. “I didn’t know that many people watched C-SPAN,” he said. People around the nation are fascinated and alarmed by the political turn in North Carolina, he said.
“When I go to meetings outside the state, the first thing people want to talk about is what’s going on in North Carolina,” he said.
McKissick said he has a cordial relationship with Pope, and he was surprised that Pope submitted a rebuttal to his testimony. Needless to say, it didn’t change his mind about the need for the amendment or the need to rein in the outsized political influence that the Supreme Court decision has given the rich and corporations.
While Pope and other conservatives say unlimited political donations promote free speech, McKissick said, “In reality it allows them to have almost a master volume control over free speech where they can drown out everyone else.”
Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be recahed at 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org