The news media in this country is abuzz with talk about North Carolina. Unfortunately, it’s not flattering. What they’re saying is that we are being controlled by an oligarchy of sorts that begins and ends with multimillionaire Art Pope, the discount store heir who has effectively bought control of state politics.
The magazine story that has lit the national fire starts right here in Western North Carolina, detailing the tight 2010 legislative race in which Franklin orthodontist Jim Davis beat former judge and senator John Snow of Murphy for a state Senate seat.
The piece in the Oct. 10 issue of the New Yorker is titled “State for Sale, a conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds” www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/10/111010fa_fact_mayer.
The reporter, Jane Mayer, was already well known for reporting on billionaires Charles and David Koch and their political influence. In the week since this more recent article was published, Mayer has been on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC cable news show. Here are a couple of excerpts from Mayer’s article:
That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis — an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party — had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reelected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.
“…. After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow — a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the ‘Go fish!’ ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s ‘pork projects.’ The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each — the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.
Back during the last General Assembly election, I kept reading about Pope and his influence. While the New Yorker will get credit for nationalizing this story, the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham-based nonprofit that professes to be a “nonpartisan media, research and education center,” did the first real reporting. Way back in 2010 it, in conjunction with the newspaper The Independent, was reporting on Pope’s growing political clout (the institute’s Facing South online magazine is one of the best currently reporting on issues facing North Carolina and the South).
This Mayer story turns on three interesting points.
One is the tie to Western North Carolina. Not only does Mayer use the Snow-Davis race as an example of how Pope and his allies smeared candidates to influence elections, she also quotes Asheville’s Martin Nesbitt, the leading Democrat remaining in the state Senate after the Republican takeover of 2010. Further, Pope’s wealthy parents sent him to the Asheville School. Here’s a description of him from the New Yorker article, an aside from when Mayer was interviewing Pope in his office:
He is now fifty-five years old and bespectacled, but the energy with which he darted from one file to the next suggested why his classmates at the Asheville School, an elite preparatory academy, had nicknamed him the Flea. He was on the school’s basketball team, and had such a strong tendency to spin and bounce off his opponents that he was often given personal fouls.
The second — and perhaps most important — point in the New Yorker piece and the Facing South stories is how much control Pope is indeed wielding in our state. He doesn’t only contribute to campaigns, but he is the primary benefactor for organizations such as the John Locke Institute. That conservative think tank’s writers are regular contributors to newspapers and talk shows and helps set the state’s political agenda. So Pope is savvy enough — and rich enough — to push his message through the media and by influencing campaigns.
Three groups for which Pope’s foundation and family are the primary benefactors — Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC and Americans for Prosperity — contributed 75 percent of the $2.6 million spent on the state’s 2010 legislative races by independent, nonparty groups. All of that went to Republicans who won a historic majority in both houses of the state legislature. According to Facing South, Pope’s support helped influence 18 GOP victories in those 2010 legislative races. That’s a lot of power for one person, regardless of his political alignment.
Finally, according to Mayer, it’s important to look at the potential for Pope’s influence on national politics. Republicans are now in control of the General Assembly for congressional redistricting. As expected, the new maps will favor Republicans (as they would have favored Democrats if they had been in power — such is the system). North Carolina went to Obama in 2008, and is considered a swing state. The new GOP clout will certainly influence the 2012 presidential race. If he helps hand North Carolina to the Republicans in 2012, Pope has set himself up to become a powerbroker on the national stage.
Times are changing. A recent Supreme Court decision opened the door for corporations to spend more on politics, and so we will see the super-rich who have millions to spend doing just that. And it’s all legal. All voters can do is try to stay informed and keep tabs on who is pulling the levers behind the curtain. In North Carolina, it’s Art Pope who’s playing Oz.