RALEIGH — Art Pope is a master of manipulation.
Despite being the true political boss of North Carolina — the one from whom Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis, and Senate leader Phil Berger take their orders over quaffs of mead at the Stonecutters Lodge — Pope has used recent events to camouflage the extent of his power.
He gave McCrory permission to stake out public positions Pope had previously opposed on issues such as economic incentives and transportation policy. He signaled to Tillis that it might be wise for the House to propose a 2014-15 budget that put greater reliance on proceeds from the state-run lottery, an institution that Pope had long tried to keep from being created.
Most recently, he made arrangements to leave a bundle of secret commands for Berger to pick up in the parking lot of a Roses store near Greensboro. They authorized the Senate leader to pick a fight over Medicaid numbers with Pope — not just a private disagreement among fiscal and budget staffers but a very public scrap in which Pope was specifically singled out for abuse by seemingly angry Senate leaders, who even mentioned the idea of subpoenaing him to testify before an appropriations committee.
It was, characteristically, a brilliant maneuver. The ensuing debate gave Pope the opportunity to befuddle his liberal critics by arguing that the Senate’s budget plan would lay off too many government employees and weaken the state’s main safety-net program, Medicaid. At the same time, it gave Phil Berger and other senators a target other than the governor to pummel — and a handy means of establishing their apparent independence from the infamous Pope Political Inc.
As for Tillis, the manufactured dispute with the Senate over teacher assistants and Medicaid coverage led to a flashy photo op with the governor, elected officials of both parties, and a crowd of educators. It was a great boost to his campaign against U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, making all the major state newscasts and front pages.
Was this the entirety of Pope’s masterful plan? Not hardly.
While all this was going on, he was pulling other people’s strings, as well. To distract attention from Republican foibles and the much-feared Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, he had his minions in Washington concoct a series of stories putting the Obama administration in a bad light on IRS abuses and mismanagement of VA hospitals. Calling in all their favors, his cronies were even able to convince all nine justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to deliver President Obama an embarrassing defeat on his attempt to encroach on the constitutional prerogatives of the legislative branch.
This was almost as successful as Pope’s previous schemes, which include embroiling the North Carolina Democratic Party in a series of scandals and controversies, feeding former Gov. Bev Perdue with prepared remarks with which she made a series of truly awful speeches, and tricking former Gov. Mike Easley into committing felonies in between bouts of strenuous woodworking.
Perhaps the greatest coup of all occurred in 2010, when Pope convinced hundreds of conservative donors across the country, including many he has never met, to spend millions of dollars on North Carolina campaigns and independent expenditures, while his actual out-of-pocket expenses on the 2010 legislative campaigns were a tiny fraction of that. He then suckered liberal activists and reporters into misreporting that Art Pope had actually spent millions of dollars on the campaign cycle, which led the victorious Republicans to feel more beholden to him.
By such wheeling and dealing, a mild-mannered business executive and former state legislator was able to buy North Carolina — lock, stock, and barrel. Now, as is evident from the events of the past few days, Art Pope can do whatever he wants to with his acquisition.*
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation. Okay, not really. The name is just a pseudonym for — you guessed it — Art Pope. He is just that brazen.
* Note: If while reading this column, you at any point thought to yourself, “you know, this could really be true,” then please push away from your screen, stand up carefully, and proceed as soon as possible to your nearest health care provider for a thorough examination.