Pope plays rope-a-dope, but don’t give up hope

by Ogi Overman

At first I thought it had to be a typo. The headline on News & Record staffer Doug Clark’s Oct. 5 column read perfectly fine, but then, oddly, there appeared a question mark at the end. But then as I read the piece in horror, the sad realization hit that it was supposed to be there. Rather than stating what to me is the obvious, Clark was questioning it. Mocking it, even.

“NC falls under evil rich guy’s control” is how I would’ve left it, but clearly Clark, a solid newsman whom I used to pass in the hallways at the High Point Enterprise, and I don’t see eye to eye on this one. Not even close.

The subject of his piece was Art Pope, an evil rich guy who, as of November 2, 2010, has NC under his control. No joke. Pope, whose cover has now been blown, is the discount-store magnate-turned-GOP powerbroker who, either personally, through his company, his foundation or the three PACs in which he is heavily involved, funneled roughly $2.2 million into 22 specifically targeted General Assembly races, 18 of which were won by Republicans.

We now have our own minor-league Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Koch brothers all bundled in one tightly wound ideological package. Pope actually learned his craft at the knee of the Kochs and is part of their elite inner circle, even touching the garment of Glenn Beck at one of their retreats. Indeed, the tea party is lucky to have such a swell guy on their side; the rest of us, not so much.

Clark seems to want to diminish Pope’s influence, pointing out that the GOP needed to win 61 House seats and 26 Senate seats to gain majorities. Now, I’m no math whiz, but I did do okay in logic, and Clark’s argument is an insult to my intelligence. Let’s see, the GOP already held 52 House seats and 20 Senate seats, and if in this mid-term year, when the majority party typically loses seats anyway, they could pick up nine House seats and six in the Senate, they’d gain control. Okay, 9 6 = 15. They targeted 22 races that they’d deemed low-hanging fruit and won with room to spare.

Campaigning on the old stand-bys of low taxes and job creation, the newly empowered GOP set aside their promises and pounced upon their twofold agenda of redistricting and turning back the clock on social issues, introducing the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and several bills restricting abortion, among others. But even more farreaching and, to my mind, insidious, their real agenda was to prevent the grassroots organizing that swept Obama to power from ever happening again. The flood of bills that ensued can all be lumped under the heading of “voter suppression”: reducing early voting and eliminating it altogether on Sunday; banning same-day registration; clamping down on voter-registration drives; and, worst of all, the voter ID law. Even the gay marriage amendment was a Rovian ploy that got John Kerry defeated in 2004, but enough folks saw through it to get the vote moved to the May primary.

Now, none of this is unique to North Carolina; it’s happening everywhere that Republicans took control in the 2010 landslide. But unless I’ve missed it, none of the other states has a Huey

Long-esque kingmaker like Art Pope.

Despite Clark’s attempts to minimize his role by characterizing the last election as voters simply being fed up with taxes and corruption and the economy, the overriding factor was the influx of independent money that flowed into GOP coffers, three-fourths of it coming from one man: Art Pope. It is either genuinely naïve or disingenuously ruthless to say that money does not buy elections, and unless a system is put in place for public financing, that will never change. There will never be true election reform until that happens and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that treats corporations as individuals is reversed. In fact, that decision played directly into Pope’s hands by allowing his three PACs — Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC — and his foundation, worth a cool $150 million, to funnel the dough directly into the hands of either the Republican State Leadership Committee or the hand-picked candidates themselves.

But now that transparency is beginning to work against him in the form of national exposure. Recently a piece appeared in the New Yorker detailing his rise to prominence, Rachel Maddow interviewed the author of the piece, Jane Mayer, on her MSNBC show, and NPR’s “Fresh Air” program did likewise. Even more significantly, on the state level, several watchdog groups have sprung up that are following the money and sharing in whose hands it winds up with the public.

Golly gee, isn’t democracy swell?