There’s something rotten in the state of North Carolina — and it smells like money. Specifically, Art Pope’s money.
In fact, Pope and his cash are responsible for North Carolina’s recent meteoric rise as the poster child for regressive, conservative politics.
As the head of Variety Wholesalers (a family-run discount store holding company) and the $150 million Pope Family Foundation, he has invested in an array of think tanks and advocacy groups dedicated to aggressively aligning the state’s political terrain with his business interests. Gov. Pat McCrory, whose campaign he bankrolled, recently named Pope to the powerful post of state budget director.
Pope is, for all intents and purposes, North Carolina’s third, lesser known, Koch brother. In fact, he’s attended the Koch Brothers’ planning summits and considers himself their close ally.
In 2010, Pope’s organizations spent $2.2 million on 22 state legislature races, and won 18 of them. In fact, outside groups backed by Pope accounted for 75 percent of independent spending in those races. In 2012, Pope and his affiliated groups again spent more than $2 million on the election, leading to a Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, and putting McCrory in the governor’s mansion.
In the dystopian world of Citizens United, Art Pope’s $2.2 million feels like chump change — and on a national scale, it is. Sheldon Adelson alone spent $150 million in 2012. But in one state, that $2.2 million can buy a whole ticket’s worth of legislators. That’s the only way to push back against the undeniable demographic shifts that have made North Carolina a battleground state in the last two presidential elections.
So, having bought and paid for key seats, Pope and his conservative cronies are fighting every progressive policy North Carolina has enacted. Their efforts could lead to a rollback of crucial gains.
Conservative legislators want to dilute the influence of minority voters by curtailing early voting, ending Sunday registration and enacting unnecessary voter ID laws. It’s a sequel to 2010’s gerrymandering. The American Prospect recently reported that though a majority of North Carolina voters picked a Democrat for the House in 2012, “thanks to where those voters had been placed, Republicans won 9 of the state’s 13 House seats.”
Public education is being gutted. As Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker, despite overwhelming support, the legislature repealed the pennysalestax that went toward public education funding. Even the state’s prized University of North Carolina system is facing some $50 million in budget cuts.
Unsurprisingly, and unconscionably, Gov. McCroy has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even though it would insure half a million North Carolinians. Instead, the state Health and Human Services Department is looking to privatize Medicaid, which will ultimately raise costs and reduce care.
Despite a 9.2 percent jobless rate — well above the national average of 7.9 percent — North Carolina is cutting back on unemployment benefits. Last week, the state legislature repealed a first-in-the-nation law that allowed inmates on death row to challenge their sentencing based on racial factors. Without a hint of irony, state Republicans claimed that the law was unfair — turning a blind eye to the systemic racial injustice and inequality that plagues capital punishment trials.
But Pope’s money cannot silence the sound of outraged North Carolinians who have had enough. The NAACP has organized a diverse coalition of religious leaders, farmers, teachers, doctors, veterans – people from all walks of life – to rally at the steps of the General Assembly in Raleigh. These “Moral Mondays” protests are against attempts to eliminate the fundamental building blocks of a fair society: voting rights, public school funding, access to health care, unemployment insurance and racial equality. The state legislature is facing an abysmal 25 percent approval rating – which means that their extremism won’t go unchecked.
Unfortunately, one-man political machines — right-wing billionaires using their outsize influence to control states and roll back hard-earned rights — are not new. The Koch brothers effectively bankrolled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s public union-busting policies and his subsequent recall victory. But North Carolina is showing us that this is just the beginning.
Republican donors know that this strategy produces a high return on investment. For just a few million dollars, not only can they affect state policies, but they also can control electoral laws and redraw districts — rigging the deck before it even gets to Washington.
With money to burn, Pope and his cronies are on their way to turning state after state into regressive backwaters while using their bucks to drown out the voices of anyone who disagrees with them. It all happens right under our noses because state legislature races almost never make the cover of The Post or the headlines on CNN.
If states are, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “the laboratories of democracy,” then Art Pope is a mad scientist — turning North Carolina into his own personal monster. It’s time for everybody who cares about preserving America’s democratic ideals to pay attention.