campaign desk

New Yorker on Art Pope’s “Singular Influence Machine”

North Carolina, Jane Mayer writes, is a “state for sale”
October 4, 2011

Just over a year ago, The New Yorker published Jane Mayer’s widely-discussed look at the “covert operations” of the “billionaire brothers” Charles and David Koch and their well-funded “war against Obama.” (The current issue of Bloomberg Markets has another look—sixteen reporters’-worth—at, specifically, the Kochs’ business practices.)

This week brings another Mayer-bylined New Yorker piece, this one focused on “conservative multi-millionaire” Art Pope, who, in a post-Citizens United environment, as Mayer tells it, has “taken control” in the battleground “state for sale,” North Carolina. (That’s the Supreme Court’s January 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which helped lift limits on independent election spending by corporations and unions.) Mayer’s piece, blogs election law professor Rick Hasen, is really a “case study on the effects of Citizens United on politics in North Carolina.” And, lest the term “case study” turn you off, Mayer’s piece is also a good read; indeed, Mayer “makes campaign finance stories compelling,” tweeted New York Times money-in-politics investigative reporter Michael Luo, who knows firsthand the challenge this presents.

Reports Mayer:

In pursuit of his goals, Pope, like the Kochs, has created a network combining a family fortune [discount store conglomerate], the resources of a large private company, and family-funded policy organizations. Of the forty million dollars that his network has spent in the past decade, thirty-five million has gone to half a dozen ostensibly nonpartisan policy groups, which he has been instrumental in creating and directing. Pope claims that these organizations are independent of his control, but, on average, the Pope family foundation supplies them with more than eighty-five per cent of their funds. Though these groups are officially defined as philanthropic, almost all parts of the Pope enterprise push the same aggressively pro-business, anti-government message. Because Pope funds the groups through his family foundation, he is able to take tax writeoffs. “I am careful to comply with the law,” Pope says. “And I keep my personal activities separate from my philanthropic, public-policy, grassroots, and independent expenditure efforts.” But, by taking full advantage of recent changes in tax and campaign-finance law, he has created a singular influence machine that, according to critics, blurs the lines between tax-deductible philanthropy and corporate-funded partisan advocacy.

How did Pope’s “network,” his “influence machine,” fare in last year’s North Carolina legislative elections? More Mayer:

Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focussed his spending, were routed.

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The institute also found that three-quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina’s 2010 state races came from accounts linked to Pope. The total amount that Pope, his family, and groups backed by him spent on the twenty-two races was $2.2 million—not that much, by national standards, but enough to exert crucial influence within the confines of one state.

In other words, targeted outside spending in state races can have real impact.

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
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.