Here’s another passage that caught my eye (emphasis mine), referring to one piece of Pope’s network, the Pope-family-founded and -funded John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank run by one John Hood:

Hood says of his operation, “What we try to do is make arguments. We believe persuasion matters.” The foundation focussed its energies on the fifteen thousand opinion-makers who, in its view, mattered most in the state: politicians, journalists, lobbyists, business leaders, university heads. “We try to pitch those for whom political debate is their job, whether they agree with us or not.” He also believes that the collapse of the traditional news business has provided an opening: “Our goal is to fill in some of the gaps as the state press corps shrinks.” Over time, he has become a ubiquitous presence in the North Carolina media. He is a regular guest on talk radio, and appears as a panelist on “NC Spin,” a weekly statewide television program. He writes an opinion column that is syndicated in more than fifty newspapers across the state. One such column—a vow to resist Obama’s health-care program, titled “I Will Not Comply”—was promoted heavily by Rush Limbaugh. Pope’s funding of the Locke Foundation is rarely noted, in print or on the air.

What makes Mayer’s piece compelling, in part, is that she was able to interview at some length the man behind the money, Art Pope. Of the resulting quotes that made it into Mayer’s piece, more than one ends in an exclamation point. Here, for example, is Pope’s view of his election spending:

Pope said that he was particularly affronted when “people throw around terms like ‘So-and-So tried to buy the election.’” In his view, such language evokes “images of actually bribing someone when they vote … or bribing a legislator after they’re elected. That’s illegal, that’s corrupt, and that’s something I’ve fought very hard against in North Carolina…To donate money, or make an independent expenditure to educate voters on the issues, or on voting records of the incumbents—I mean, it helps citizens make informed decisions! It’s the core of the First Amendment!”

More from Mayer and Pope:

At the same time that Pope’s network has been fighting to get university budgets cut, Pope has offered to fund academic programs in subjects that he deems worthwhile, like Western civilization and free-market economics. Some faculty members have seen Pope’s offers as attempts to buy academic control…

Pope reacted angrily to the notion that some professors consider his money tainted. “We’re in retailing!” he said. “It’s not as if it’s blood diamonds!”

Less compelling, to me, were the couple of instances where Mayer does a sort of guilt-by-association thing: Pope and family members gave money to Candidate X. And Candidate X’s political party ran a really objectionable ad. To wit:

The racially charged ad [against Jim Davis’s Democratic opponent for State Senate] 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.

Mark Binker, a political reporter for the Greensboro News & Record
has
a few criticisms of Mayer’s piece, including that it is “derivative, in that it doesn’t provide a lot of new information.” While Mayer does rely on earlier work done by, for one, The Institute for Southern Studies, and Art Pope’s influence is a subject that has been explored in-state, “for most of [The New Yorker’s] national audience,” Binker acknowledges, “all of the material will be new.”

If this—wealthy, connected folks working to influence elections and why—is to be Mayer’s beat, the coming year will no doubt provide plenty of subject material.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.