Wheeler: Let's not demonize Art Pope

Immediately, my eye was drawn to the first name on the list of charities and universities the Pope Foundation blessed with $1.2 million in grants last year.

The Alliance Medical Ministry? Art Pope, Republican archenemy of some Wake County school board Democrats, gave $10,000 to the charity where Dr. Anne McLaurin, former school board Democrat, provides medical care to the uninsured? What nefarious motive must he have?

We need our selfish, rich, conservative caricatures to eschew humanitarian efforts so we can say they want to hang on to their haddock. Every conservative, we know, believes that giving a man a fish instead of teaching him to fish just keeps the man standing there with his hand out.

"If you are cold, starving, sick, it's hard to learn a trade or profession so you can provide for your family. You do need direct humanitarian help," Pope said recently in a lengthy interview. "You can call it treating the symptoms when you just provide food and shelter when you want to treat the disease, which is poverty. But sometimes you do treat the symptoms first or the person may die."

Humanitarian aid actually is the fourth prong of the Pope Foundation's charitable efforts - the other three being public policy, education and the arts. Given the amount of unfavorable press Pope has received this year, one might expect any talk of prongs to refer to a pitchfork.

An October article in The New Yorker, headlined "State for Sale," chronicled the role three Pope Foundation-backed public policy groups played in the Republican takeover of the General Assembly in 2010.

Pope has been characterized as having a "plantation mentality" because Variety Wholesalers, his family's retail business, employs some part-time workers at minimum wage. He also has been accused of taking advantage of blacks because many of his stores are in low-income neighborhoods. The N.C. Association of Educators even called for a boycott of the stores, which include Rose's and Maxway.

It's painfully hard to understand why detractors demonize a man for providing affordable goods in low-income areas and why they want to jeopardize the jobs of the 7,000 people he employs with a boycott.

"When we do make money from the company, most of it we're reinvesting in the company and still creating more jobs," Pope said. "Every day we sell clothing for an affordable price, every day we make a payroll, we're enriching lives."

In addition to the Alliance Medical Ministry grant, the Pope Foundation gave $5,000 to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, $5,000 to Hope Reins of Raleigh, $10,000 to Habitat for Humanity, $10,000 to Hospice of Wake County, $5,000 to the Interfaith Food Shuttle, $25,000 to Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, $5,000 to the Raleigh Rescue Mission, $5,000 to the Salvation Army, $5,000 to the Shepherd's Table, $25,000 to StepUp Ministry, $10,000 to Urban Ministries, $30,000 to the YMCA - and $5,000 to Safe Haven for Cats.

You mean Art Pope doesn't eat cats for breakfast?

"I'm a dog person also," said Pope, who has a 17-year-old she-cat named Rocky. "I'm an equal opportunity animal lover."

'Yeah, it's working'

In December, the Pope Foundation celebrated its 25th anniversary with a dinner that raised $300,000 for StepUp Ministry. The Raleigh nonprofit helps more than 600 low-wage and homeless people move their lives to stability - job, family and home - each year.

"They provide life skills and job skills, teach them to manage budgets, so those worse off in our society, in our county, can get a hand up to provide for themselves and their families," Pope said. "A lot of those at StepUp have received direct charity through food kitchens; some suffered from child abuse, some from substance abuse, and they need help there as well. We try to accomplish the whole range."

Being able to honor StepUp was one of the highlights of his year, Pope said.

"Looking at the clients of StepUp who were at the dinner who spoke to a big audience and then also spoke one on one with us, that was a 'Yeah, it's working' moment," Pope said, fists in the air. "We can make a difference."

In the longer term, Pope said, he'd like to end poverty so people don't need charity.

"Until we get there, we still need to provide direct humanitarian help," he said.

Addressing the divide

Of course, it's the path to "there" that so divides liberals and conservatives.

Pope believes protecting the free-market economy, "subject to the rule of law with the government providing essential services," creates the conditions "where people can be successful and provide for their families and raise themselves out of poverty, so the next generation will do better."

His support of the John Locke Foundation and other conservative public policy groups "is just as intentional to alleviate poverty as direct charity like the Food Bank and Habitat. One is treating the short-term, immediate needs and symptoms, and the other addresses the underlying causes of poverty and will eliminate poverty for more people in the long term."

Disagree with him. Debate him. But don't demonize him.

People are complex. Always assigning dark motives to the one-dimensional foes we create makes it easier to feel morally superior, but it makes it harder to solve our problems.