What’s the true value of Art Pope’s political agenda?

by Jordan Green

As a 22-year-old intern at the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham in 1997, my colleagues and I joked about taking direct action against the rent-to-own store across the street in Lakewood Shopping Center to challenge exploitation of the poor.

Strangely enough, the Maxway discount store a couple doors down seems to have escaped our attention as a focus of economic and political power in North Carolina.

I bought my first cooking set there for what I thought was the great value of $15. Each piece had a maroon glossy finish and was lined with a Teflon-like coating. I mostly used the saucepan to cook macaroni and cheese, and over time I noticed that flecks of black material surfaced on top of the macaroni when I stirred the pan too vigorously with a wooden spoon. I don’t remember using the set much after that, but a couple years later I was shocked to learn that a good frying pan could go for $40 or more.

In 2012, long after I moved to Greensboro, Institute for Southern Studies Executive Director Chris Kromm and INDY Week won second place for investigative reporting for their joint exposé on the political empire of the Pope family, whose fortune was built on the sales from hundreds of those discount stores across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region, which inevitably seem to be located in rundown shopping centers serving poor and, often, African-American shoppers.

The Pope influence even reaches into state media, with family funds bankrolling the John Locke Foundation. The foundation, in turn, publishes the monthly Carolina Journal newspaper, which has occasionally produced solid investigative reporting along with editorialized articles that take a limited-government slant. Civitas Institute, another outfit funded by the Pope family fortune, provides activists trainings to help citizens learn the mechanics of elections. Pope family members are also generous donors to conservative Republican candidates. And last December, the circle was completed when Art Pope, CEO and chairman of the board of Variety Wholesalers (owner of Maxway, Roses and other stores), was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory as deputy budget director.

Pope’s role in moving North Carolina decisively to the right has not escaped the notice, including a 2011 story in The New Yorker based largely on the Institute’s research. And on Dec. 14, at the culmination of a week of informational pickets outside Pope-owned stores, The New York Times took notice with a story about the man and the state he has remade.

Sen. Earline Parmon and Rep. Evelyn Terry, two Democratic state lawmakers from Forsyth County, huddled that rainy and windy day outside a Maxway store in Northside Shopping Center on Patterson Avenue in Winston-Salem, waiting for the picket to begin. Parmon took a cell-phone call from Linda Sutton, an organizer with Democracy North Carolina, and then relayed to the small group that they did not have a permit to picket in front of the store and that Sutton requested that they move to the entrance of the shopping center.

“I would like someone to stay here and take a poll of how many black African-Americans are going into the store,” Terry said. “That’s the objective of their business plan, right? They’ll arrest us, won’t they?” Parmon acknowledged that the store management might ask them to leave.

In fact, Variety Wholesalers makes no bones about its site criteria, explaining on its website that the company seeks locations in secondor third-generation shopping centers with a minimum of 25 percent black population and median household income of $40,000 or less within five miles.

After a handful of elderly, white protesters threatened to stay put and risk arrest, the group gradually drifted over to the permitted location at the shopping center entrance. Officers in two Winston-Salem police cars monitored the scene from across the street.

Parmon and Terry joined about a dozen people at the shopping center entrance in front of a banner reading, “Art Pope: Owner of Roses, poverty creator.” Parmon enthusiastically grabbed a small handmade sign declaring, “Art Pope’s budget cuts unemployment benefits” and stepped forward to flash it at cars as they slowed for the light.

In a public letter addressed to the Rev. William Barber II, the state NAACP head and one of the statewide picket leaders, Pope defended the business model used by his stores, contending, “We literally create and bring thousands of much-needed jobs to communities throughout North Carolina.”

Matthew Barr, one of the picketers in Winston- Salem, itemized a long list of initiatives undertaken by the Republican-controlled legislature and embraced by the McCrory administration: turning down the expansion of Medicaid to cover uninsured North Carolinians, reducing unemployment benefits, cutting funding to higher education and public schools, fracking and restricting women’s right to choose an abortion.

While Pope said he was “shocked” that Barber and his allies “would demand any public official to support your political positions by threatening a business which not a part of state government,” he added: “I do think we share a common goal of alleviating poverty. Let us respectfully disagree while we debate the merits, and better policies with consensus support of the people will be enacted through the democratic process.” !