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The Truth About Art Pope

"I believe that a free society is both the most just society and the one that's going to help eliminate poverty and bring the greatest prosperity for the most people."
November 14, 2013

Art Pope J.D. '81 wants you to know that he did not buy North Carolina’s 2010 elections. “Depending on your perspective, I get far more credit and far more blame than I deserve,” says the Raleigh businessman, who in January 2013 became Governor Pat McCrory’s budget director. He believes that voters would have swept in the state’s first Republican legislative majority in modern history even without the influence of a handful of Pope-funded conservative organizations. “But the left-wing groups had to come up with an excuse,” he says. “So they used me and my name as the bogeyman to blame [the GOP victory on] the state being sold.”

Pope—president and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a chain of 370 discount stores developed by his father—clearly worries about how the media depict him. During a two-hour interview with Duke Magazine, he referred several times to a 2011 New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, called “State for Sale,” which credited him with “spending millions” to build “a singular influence machine” consisting of multiple organizations pushing “the same aggressively pro-business, anti-government message.” Mayer’s article suggested that by targeting key legislative races for infusions of campaign money, Pope and his network helped orchestrate the 2010 state Republican takeover.

Pope says he has grown dismayed by the repeated characterization of him as a privileged kingmaker. “If this sounds a little bit defensive, it’s because of the false propaganda that I supposedly started off life as an heir with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he says. “I’m not an heir. I did not inherit any of my wealth from my father. I did benefit greatly from partnering with my father in a family business.” In fact, Pope says, he spent his earliest years living in a three-bedroom rental house in the town of Fuquay Springs (which later became part of Fuquay-Varina) before his family moved to a larger home in nearby Raleigh.

No kingmaker: Pope gives a lecture to a philosophy class at UNC-CH last spring. Taylor Sweet/The Daily Tar Heel

What Pope clearly did inherit from his parents were his political beliefs, which extol free enterprise with minimal government interference. “I grew up with the values of my father and my mother,” he says. He listened to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and knew that his older brother protested against the Vietnam War, but he says he was more influenced by his father’s business success. “I believe that a free society is both the most just society and the one that’s going to help eliminate poverty and bring the greatest prosperity for the most people,” he says.

After graduating from Duke Law, Pope worked in private practice and then as special counsel to Republican Governor Jim Martin. In 1986, his father asked him to join the family business and to start the John William Pope Foundation, which would channel money from the family and its business to charities, education, and the arts. (The foundation has given significant funding to Duke’s Center for the History of Political Economy.) “Rather than just treat the symptoms of poverty, we wanted to treat the underlying causes,” Pope says—which to him meant supporting policy groups that advocated for “individual liberty” and “limited constitutional government.” Giving to such groups, he says, “is also charity.”

At the time, Pope says, there were no conservative policy organizations in North Carolina to his liking. So Pope—who in 1988 was elected to the state House—threw the foundation’s resources behind the creation of the John Locke Foundation, which opened in 1990 (with additional support from the E.A. Morris Charitable Foundation) and became the state’s premier conservative think tank. Other Pope Foundation-funded groups followed, including the Civitas Institute, which publishes substantive policy papers and also posts police mug shots of Moral Monday protesters; the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, which litigates issues ranging from charter schools (which it favors) to the individual mandate in President Obama’s health-care reform (which it opposes); and North Carolina’s chapter of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a small-government organization cofounded by billionaire energy executives David and Charles Koch. (Pope, a friend of the Koch brothers, served as one of Americans for Prosperity’s national directors.) Variety Wholesalers helped fund Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC, which have produced mailers and robocalls targeting individual politicians.

“He was involved, in some fashion, in founding all of these organizations,” says John Hood, president of the Locke Foundation. “It is entirely legitimate to say Art Pope was an integral part of building the conservative movement in North Carolina.” Thanks to Pope, he says, “what we have now is a rich tapestry of public policy groups on the left and on the right. I think that’s good. Not everybody does.”

Those wary of Pope’s power point to the impact of the past two elections on state policy—the cuts to education and social programs, the shift in the tax burden toward the less affluent, and the restriction of voting rights. “This is extremism gone crazy,” says the Reverend William Barber II M.Div. ’89, state president of the NAACP. “It’s morally indefensible, and it’s economically insane.” And it stems directly, Barber adds, from Pope’s funding priorities. “He’s the most ultraconservative force in the state, who makes his money off of poor people and then supports policies through Civitas and John Locke that actually hurt poor people.”

In the academic community, Pope’s foundation is known for funding the John W. Pope Center on Higher Education Policy, a spinoff of the Locke Foundation. The Pope Center has been a strong critic of universities, public and private, that veer away from teaching traditional Western civilization or that promote “politically correct” and “socialist” beliefs.

In 2011, for example, the Pope Center chastised the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for halving the number of sections of “Elements of Politics,” an honors class that explores the writings of Western thinkers like Plato and Locke. “Carolina doesn’t seem to have enough money for serious courses, but plenty of money for frivolous courses,” Pope Center president Jane Shaw wrote at the time. Among the honors course she considered “lightweight” was “The World of the Beat Generation: Transcultural Connections.”

The Pope Center also has criticized Duke, most excoriatingly in a 2011 column on the organization’s website by supporter Albert Oettinger Jr. B.S. ’62, M.F. ’66 about why he stopped donating to his alma mater. Oettinger cited a liberal bias on the faculty and a “racial, sexual, class, and political orthodoxy to which one must adhere.” In 2009, Shaw attended a Duke conference on race that she later described as “Orwellian,” particularly the majority view that racism continues to thrive in the U.S. “I assumed,” she wrote, “that the election of Barack Obama...suggests that racism is behind us.” The Pope Center has singled out two Duke programs for praise: the Focus Program, which offers interdisciplinary course clusters to freshmen, and the Program in American Values and Institutions, which emphasizes freedom, responsibility, and liberty.

Pope notes that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything the Pope Center says. “I have a laissez-faire approach to curriculum,” he says. “If academic standards are met, and there’s a sufficient number of students who choose to take a course, then I am fine with that course being offered. Now, in a free society, others are free to criticize whether a course is a good course or a bad course, a silly course or an academically challenging course. I support that open criticism and debate.”

As with his role in state politics, Pope believes his academic critics treat him like a “bogeyman” because of the Pope Center’s views. “University professors are very protective of their academic freedom,” he says. “Yet they presume, or just lie, about my saying various things as if I controlled and edited and directed everything written by independent organizations like the Pope Center for Higher Education [Policy]. Would you ascribe to the president of Duke University every single thing that’s written by a professor at Duke University?”