Politics & Government

Cope’s tactics make sympathy a tough sell

Judge Stephens to Dana Cope and SEANC: "Shame on him. Shame on the organization from which he stole."

During a 2015 hearing, Judge Donald Stephens questions how SEANC could let former leader Dana Cope embezzle from the organization.
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During a 2015 hearing, Judge Donald Stephens questions how SEANC could let former leader Dana Cope embezzle from the organization.

When Dana Cope was taken into the state’s custody Tuesday, he left a trail of foes unable to muster much sympathy for his downfall.

Cope spent 15 years throwing punches. As chief lobbyist for state employees, he targeted Democrats and Republicans alike, branding himself as a “sheriff” who would deliver election heat to those who didn’t bend to his association’s demands. Over the years, Cope described his approach to reporters as “shock-jock”; his targets called him unduly aggressive.

On Tuesday, Cope sat silently in a Wake County courtroom as prosecutor Lorrin Freeman – who had been on Cope’s target list just last year – delivered a decisive blow.

Cope heads to prison to be watched by guards he robbed of membership dues when he embezzled association funds to spruce up his house, buy art and take luxury vacations. In court, Cope tried to steady his voice as he told a judge that he was a thief and deserved the fate he must now accept.

To grasp his fall, one must understand his climb.

In 2000, at age 30, Cope stepped to the helm of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, a group of 55,000 public employees and retirees ranging from university professors to members of highway road crews. Wake Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens noted Tuesday that over his career, Cope shaped the organization to be his “alter ego.”

For many, Cope’s methods as chief lobbyist for state employees left a bitter taste.

“I think Dana is like so many people who misinterpret the way in which power should be exercised,” said Howard Lee, a former Democratic state senator from Chapel Hill whom Cope tried to unseat in his 2000 re-election bid. “As time went along, I think he thought he was the center of the universe, and that’s what got him carried away.”

When Cope was hired, SEANC was at a turning point; morale was low as pay and benefits for state employees remained stagnant. The group’s board was itching for change, eager to be a force that lawmakers had to heed. Many wanted the association to link with a national union.

By many accounts, Cope delivered. Under his leadership, the association joined the national Service Employees International Union in 2008. And over the years, bit by bit, he lobbied to secure some pay raises for state employees.

Looking for a fight

Within months of taking the job in 2000, Cope stormed the legislature, building a brand for himself that left legislators who considered themselves sympathetic to the needs of state employees often confounded and uneasy. According to newspaper reports from 2000, Cope unleashed his ire indiscriminately, targeting legislators he said didn’t push hard enough for salary increases for state employees.

Democrats, often seen to be pro-worker, enjoyed no protection from Cope. In 2004, the association supported Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine after Gov. Mike Easley froze contributions to state employees’ pension funds. SEANC sued Easley over the pension funds.

“Dana took on the role of an outsider,” said Harry Payne, the former state labor commissioner who hired Cope at the Labor Department. “It was a bold strategy. He gained a lot of adversaries. That was just the way he chose. It left him isolated.”

Cope resigned from SEANC in February after a former board member gave The News & Observer documents showing that Cope misappropriated association resources for personal gain.

While the scope of the accusations against Cope surprised many, those who have watched him closely aren’t surprised that he blurred the lines between his personal and professional life, as he explained to reporters when he resigned. To Cope, much seemed personal.

In 2009, Cope’s Raleigh home was included in a Wake County school reassignment meant to redistribute the balance of low-income students. Cope, whose two sons would have been sent to a different school, led a charge to unseat board members who voted for the changes.

And in 2014, after Lorrin Freeman, then the clerk of Wake County court, raised concerns to Cope about a purchasing program with high service fees for state employees, Cope funneled $60,000 of the association’s political action funds to Freeman’s primary opponent in the race for district attorney. She won anyway.

Energy, ‘can-do’ attitude

Over the years, legislators found Cope’s attacks to be unduly offensive. Sometimes, they fired back.

One called him a “loose cannon.” Another said he was a “twerp.” Marc Basnight, once the most powerful Democratic state senator, banned Cope from his offices and refused to speak to him. Another senator called police to escort Cope from the legislature after he said Cope called him a “liar.”

“We all saw him as being an egotistical, self-centered individual,” said Lee, the Chapel Hill senator targeted by Cope in 2000.

Cope wasn’t always seen as divisive.

A Texas native, he came to North Carolina in 1992, fresh out of college and hungry to work in politics. He found work as a campaign finance manager for Payne, who was running for state labor commissioner. When Payne won in 1992, Cope became the Labor Department’s lobbyist.

Payne recalls Cope’s unmatched energy and “can-do” attitude. Even those who later became his critics, such as Lee, say they saw promise in Cope in the 1990s.

“He has a natural gift for home-style interpersonal connection,” Payne said. “It was habit or preference that he wanted to get to know everyone in the room.”

In 2000, Cope made a play in the Democratic primary for labor commissioner but later pulled out, citing the high cost of campaigning. He was already a contender for the executive director’s position at the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

The essence of Cope’s missteps fly in the face of the sensibilities that shaped his career. He described himself as the champion of the underdog, instincts instilled in him by parents who often played the part of Good Samaritans for those down on their luck.

In college, Cope got involved in national politics and campaigned for an increase in the minimum wage. As SEANC director, he talked passionately about the burdens of low-paid state employees, describing how prison guards and road workers earned so little they had to secure second jobs.

All the while, Cope supplemented his salary with the association’s money, about a quarter of which came from the paychecks of state employees.

Locke: 919-829-8927

@MandyLockeNews

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