In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer describes how a rumpled dollar store magnate is quietly reshaping the politics of North Carolina, and maybe the nation. Art Pope has been dubbed “The Knight of the Right” for spending millions of dollars bankrolling conservative causes and candidates.
Mayer describes how Pope threw his money and his infrastructure behind REDMAP, a spectacularly successful 2010 bid to give Republicans control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1870, just in time to redraw the Congressional districts along partisan lines. The GOP is expected to pick up at least four more Congressional seats in the next election.
North Carolina is a purple state that Barack Obama carried by just 14,000 votes in 2008. Some analysts say that the president must repeat that performance to be reelected in 2012.
Mayer reports that Tar Heel
Palmetto State Republicans are using their newfound dominance to restrict early voting and mandate government-issued ID at the polls. These kinds of measures can be expected to disproportionately depress voter turnout among key Democratic constituencies including minority voters, youth, and the poor.
Jane Mayer won a Hillman Prize in 2009 for her book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. I interviewed her by email.
Q: Can you say a little more about how the Citizens United Supreme Court decision created opportunities for Pope to influence politics in North Carolina?
A: The Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision held that corporations, like people, have the right to free speech, and that spending money in campaigns is a form of expression, so the result was that it struck down prohibitions against corporations spending money on advertisements directly for and against candidates. Because of this ruling, Art Pope, who owns a private business in North Carolina, can now legally spend as much money from his company’s general treasury as he wishes on ads aimed at influencing the outcome of political elections. In reality, publicly-held corporations are somewhat restrained in their political spending by the need not to offend shareholders. But the owners of private companies, like Pope and the Koch Brothers, have no need to worry about shareholders. They can freely spend on politics as they see fit. Pope, who was linked to three-quarters of all the independent money spent on state races in North Carolina in 2010, is emblematic of how much influence a single, motivated, wealthy businessman can now wield in the post Citizens United world.
Q: You’ve reported extensively on Charles and David Koch, conservative powerbrokers who are spending their oil and chemical fortune on conservative causes. How would you compare Art Pope’s approach to politics to that of the Koch Brothers?
A: The Kochs have exponentially more money than Art Pope. He appears to have ‘merely’ $148 million in his family foundation, while Charles and David Koch are reportedly each worth upwards of $20 billion. But beyond that, there are some very interesting similarities in how they approach politics.
To begin with, both Art Pope and David Koch harbored major electoral ambitions earlier in their lives and both were defeated, suggesting that their ideas lacked popularity at the ballot box. David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket against Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Art Pope ran for Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina as a Republican in 1992. When neither proved successful, they ramped up efforts to gain political power by other means – principally by the strategic expenditure of their family fortunes.
Both Pope and the Kochs funded non-profit think tanks meant to promote their arch-conservative anti-government agenda, and both also contributed to a plethora of far-right advocacy groups – in fact they have for years funded many of the same ones.
Starting in 1984, Pope and the Kochs actually worked together in setting up Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was a prototype for the kinds of corporate-funded astro-turf groups that have organized the Tea Party movement. It was followed in 2004 by Americans for Prosperity, which David Koch founded, and for which Art Pope is a director. Both the Kochs and Pope have in many ways pioneered the art of pushing the outer legal limits (without exceeding them as far as I know) of combining non-partisan tax-exempt philanthropy with hyper-partisan advocacy.
They both pour the wealth from private companies founded by their fathers, into personally-controlled, state-of-the-art political machines pushing very similar worldviews. Finally, both the Kochs and Pope contribute heavily both to political campaigns, and to independent groups involved in electoral spending. As such, they both illustrate the enormous power that wealthy businessmen can wield, especially in the post-Citizens United era.
Q: I was surprised to read that Art Pope calls himself an admirer of John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” minus any implications about redistribution of wealth. What part of Rawls’ theory does he admire?
A: Pope likes Rawls’ notion that a just society is one in which all people have equal opportunity. He just thinks that private property and wealth ought to accrue to those who earn it, and that this makes a society more, not less fair. The key question really, is whether inequality of wealth interferes with inequality of opportunity. He would argue (with some caveats) that it doesn’t.
Pope preaches that we create our own opportunities in life. So, he thinks there’s no need for the government to intervene to ensure the fair equality of opportunity that Rawls said was essential to a just society. On the contrary, he thinks the goverment should do a lot less for the worst-off among us.
After her Pope story ran, Mayer posted a follow-up on the New Yorker’s website about the scope and limits of Pope’s philosophy of rugged individualism and self-bootstrapping. He told her that he was not an heir because his father made him and his siblings buy equity stakes in the family business. I found myself wondering where he got the money to buy in and whether he paid a market price? We know he worked for the family business before he came to own a large chunk of it.
The Facing South blog noted that Pope accepted $330,000 in campaign loans from his parents, which he never paid back.
Meanwhile, as Mayer reported in her original story, the head of the Pope-funded Center for Higher Education Policy has denounced publicly-funded universities as a “boondoggle” and the Republican-controlled state legislators that Pope helped to elect have slashed the budget of North Carolina’s celebrated state-university system by 16%, which will mean layoffs, tuition hikes, and fewer scholarships–even though the state’s constitution guarantees an affordable college education to all residents.
“All this talk about the Protestant work ethic, but he made his money the old-fashioned way: his mother bore a son,” David Parker, the chair of the Democratic Party in North Carolina told Mayer in the initial profile, “We are all prisoners of Art Pope’s fantasy world.”