Last January, in a dark-of-night vote, Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina passed a bill barring educators from using payroll deduction to pay dues to the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). The controversial vote was widely seen as retribution against educators for their criticism of the GOP’s extremist education agenda. It was a radical, bare-knuckled move that personified the rightward tilt of the North Carolina’s Republican party – a shift that even the few remaining moderate lawmakers find disconcerting, but powerless to stop.
After the dues deduction vote, some of these last-standing moderate Republicans even told Brian Lewis, manager of government relations at NCAE, that it was a vote they didn’t want to take, and, what’s more, even begged their leadership not to do it. So why did they go along?
“The reply I got from most of them,” recalled Lewis, “was essentially ‘Oh come on, you know the reason.’”
That may sound a bit cryptic, but Lewis, and anyone who is involved in or follows North Carolina politics, understood the message. The “reason” is a man named Art Pope – or more specifically his ability to target and primary any GOP lawmaker who doesn’t meet his standard of ideological purity.
Is that Governor Art Pope? Majority Leader Art Pope? Representative Art Pope? Or maybe even Lieutenant Governor Art Pope? None of the above. Art Pope is CEO and Board Chairman of Variety Wholesalers, Inc. a low-end retail discount chain of roughly 400 stores scattered throughout the southeastern U.S. In the past decade, Pope has used a network of foundations and “think-tanks” he created to funnel more than $40 million toward various right-wing causes.
“His reach is wide, vast and deep,” says Lewis. “Art Pope owns the North Carolina Republican Party.”
The extent of Pope’s influence in North Carolina – seen by most political observers as a critical swing state in the 2012 elections – was clearly evident in 2010. Republicans dominated that election, winning 18 of the 22 races targeted by Pope, and the vast majority of spending by independent groups in these races came from Pope-funded organizations.
Bankrolling right-wing politicians provides Pope with the committed allies he needs to pursue his number one agenda: the complete dismantling of the public sector.
Pope has said that he merely thinks the private sector is simply more efficient and effective than the public sector – boilerplate conservative language, but it masks who Pope actually is.
“But deep down, he’s an ideologue, a zealot.”
Lewis adds: “Art Pope is someone who believes that if you are a public employee, then you must be a socialist.”
Pope’s impassioned and rigid belief in the power and virtue of the private sector drives his political activities. Pope’s organizations – the Pope Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the John Locke Foundation, the Civitas Institute, to name just a few – all aggressively promote the privatization of the education system. If it’s a bill to expand charters, voucher programs, or undermine workers’ rights and decimate public education funding, connect the dots and they will lead back to Art Pope’s fortune.
Pope, unfortunately, is just one member of a brigade of corporate players who are behind some of the most extreme, destructive so-called education reform bills currently being debated. The poster boys are, of course, the billionaires Charles and David Koch of Koch industries, whose reach and influence extends far beyond their base of operations in Kansas and have strong ties to Pope. Then there’s the DeVos family in Michigan. All are connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nationwide front group funded almost exclusively by corporate dollars, which has been distributing huge amounts of cash to right-wing politicians in statehouses across the nation.
While lawmakers are finding themselves increasingly indebted to these corporate players, Art Pope and others like him are, in turn, accountable to no one. They hold no public office and prefer to sit behind the curtain, pulling the levers.
Still, such power and influence over the democratic process can only stay concealed for so long.
“People need know what Art Pope does, which is why we’re trying to bring him out and his activities out into the light,” explains Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham-based non-profit media, research and education center. One of its projects is the “Art Pope Exposed” web site.
“A lot of what he’s pushing really stands outside where the public stands,” says Kromm, “but because he has the money, he can call the shots.”
Except when he overreaches and progressive coalitions can push back effectively. This is what happened last year in Wake Country, where voters rejected a slate of Pope-backed right-wing candidates for the Board of Education. Pope had helped conservatives win control of the Wake County board in 2009, who were determined to dismantle the county’s long-standing diversity policies that had helped roll back decades of segregation.
“What we found is that when we can assemble a strong, united coalition, “ explains NCAE’s Lewis, “and we can at least be competitive on TV, then we can beat him. That’s what happened in Wake County. There were five races to win back the school board. We took all of them.”
Nonetheless, tracking and fighting back against Pope’s activities can be a grueling, full-time job for supporters of public education. And even as more and more North Carolinians get to know Art Pope, his various organizations have spent much of 2012 conducting a no-holds barred media campaign spreading distortions and misinformation about education funding in the state.
“You can often defeat bad ideas in the court of public opinion and in the legislature,” Lewis says, “ but guys like Art Pope have deep pockets, they are relentless, and they don’t care how they’re viewed in the public. He believes, in the end, his money will win the day.”