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The 40 Million Dollar Man

The Oct. 10 edition of The New Yorker magazine features an in-depth look at North Carolina’s most politically powerful unelected individual – J. Arthur “Art” Pope, chain-store retailer and Republican patron. One measure of Pope’s power comes from an accounting of his political spending in a set of two charts prepared by Democracy North Carolina for The New Yorker. The charts detail over $40 million that Pope has steered into his favorite causes from his family, his family’s foundation (John W. Pope Foundation), and his family’s business (Variety Wholesaler, owner of the Rose’s, Maxway, and Super Dollar retail merchandise chains that cater to lower-income consumers).

  • In the past 10 years, Pope has pumped $3 million into state and national politics and $35 million in a network of North Carolina nonprofit think tanks and advocacy groups that push a libertarian and ultra-conservative agenda.
  • In addition to these funds, he has invested millions in national conservative organizations that he helps lead as a board member, trustee or advisor (see second part of chart of foundation grants). At the top of this list is a $2.2 million investment over the past decade in Americans for Prosperity, where Pope is one of the four board members along with its founder, David Koch. AFP is credited with financing and nurturing the national Tea Party movement; one of AFP’s strongest chapters is in North Carolina.
  • Pope’s biggest investment by far has been in the John Locke Foundation, which he co-founded and helps direct from his board position; his family foundation accounts for $19.7 million or 79% of JLF’s $25.0 million income for FY 2001-2010.
  • Pope is also a board member and the source of over 90% of the funds for the Pope Civitas Institute, named for his father ($8.0 million over the past decade); the NC Institute for Constitutional Law ($3.3 million); and Pope Center for Higher Education ($3.0 million).
  • Pope family members frequently bundle their campaign contributions together, beginning the practice when Art’s father (John W. Pope, now deceased) was a prominent Republican donor. In the landmark 2010 election, Art provided NC General Assembly candidates with bundled contributions (totaling up to $16,000 per candidate) from himself, his wife, his mother, and his sister; 21 GOP legislative candidates received a total of $252,000 from these bundles in 2010.

Another measure of Pope’s power comes from an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies of his influence in the pivotal 2010 election. Along with his family’s donations to candidates, Pope helped lead and finance three organizations that spent money on mailers and attack ads in selected races; the combined investment totaled $2.2 million in 22 pivotal legislative contests. Republicans won 18 and took control of the General Assembly. Pope’s Variety Stores gave $470,000 to the three groups (Real Jobs NC, Civitas Action, and Americans for Prosperity), and Pope is an officer of each or its nonprofit, c-3 affiliate. The Institute is continuing its investigation of “Pope’s empire.”

Former State Senator Marc Basnight, backed by the money of oil baron Walter Davis, reigned for many years as the state’s top political heavyweight – but Davis is dead, Basnight has retired from politics, and the NC General Assembly is now controlled by Republicans. Some thought North Carolina would never see another person with Basnight’s clout, but Art Pope could have a bright future as kingmaker and behind-the-curtain Wizard of GOP.