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Daily Journal

Popish Plot? No Sale

Oct. 4th, 2011
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RALEIGH – For weeks now, the buzz in Raleigh political circles was that Jane Mayer of The New Yorker was doing an expose on my longtime friend Art Pope, a retailer and former state legislator whose family foundation has supported the John Locke Foundation since its inception in 1989.

When my turn came to talk to Mayer, I not only answered her questions about Art’s role at JLF but also volunteered a great deal of additional information about public-policy groups in North Carolina.

I needn’t have bothered. Mayer knew exactly what story she wanted to tell before she started reporting it. Facts inconvenient to her thesis that “a conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina” were simply ignored.

For example, the notion that Art Pope’s money “bought” the North Carolina General Assembly for Republicans in 2010 may sound plausible if you are told only that he and his family members made direct political contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars to GOP candidates, and that he and organizations with which he is associated contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to independent expenditure and public-information campaigns during the 2010 cycle.

But this “Popish Plot” notion starts to sound pretty silly if it is reported – as Mayer should have done – that there was some $30 million spent on North Carolina legislative campaigns and independent expenditures during the 2010 cycle, of which about $16 million aided Democrats and $14 million aided Republicans.

Sure, without the efforts of Art Pope and other conservative donors to independent groups such as Real Jobs NC, Democrats would have enjoyed an even larger financial advantage – an edge of $4 million instead of $2 million – as they always have in past elections. But that hardly constitutes some kind of plutocratic putsch. Mayer was provided this information. Her decision not to use it speaks volumes.

As for public-policy philanthropy in North Carolina, I pointed out that while the Pope Foundation has indeed been a generous supporter of right-of-center think tanks and policy organizations in North Carolina for more than two decades, North Carolina’s left-of-center think tanks and policy organizations are more numerous and better funded.

I pointed out that the largest North Carolina grantmaker to public-policy groups is not the Pope Foundation but the left-leaning Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation of Winston-Salem. According to the most recent tax filings, ZSR made $6.7 million in grants to North Carolina public-policy groups and causes. The Pope Foundation gave $5.7 million. Other large North Carolina foundations such as the A.J. Fletcher Foundation also give primarily to left-wing causes.

I provided Mayer with a list of the grant recipients and encouraged her to give her readers an accurate picture. She chose not to report any of these details. Again, that speaks volumes.

Still, as hit pieces go, the New Yorker story turned out to be a bit of a dud. It was mostly a rehash of attacks previously lodged against Art and the conservative movement in North Carolina by a gaggle of left-wing activists funded and controlled by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

The staff and board of ZSR – which includes former Democratic state senator Leslie Winner, current Democratic state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, former Democratic cabinet secretary Jane Smith Patterson, and former Democratic Congressman Steve Neal – resent the Pope family’s intrusion into public-policy philanthropy and the rising influence of conservative ideas. So they have authorized ZSR grantees such as Democracy North Carolina (which received $350,000 last year) and the North Carolina Justice Center ($2.7 million) to conduct a series of personal attacks against Art, me, and other North Carolina conservatives and libertarians.

The strategy is not merely to disagree with our ideas but to accuse us of evil intentions, racism, sexism, and illegality, with the ultimate goal of destroying our reputations and discouraging any other business leaders or philanthropists from risking the same fate by supporting us.

Hmm. On second thought, perhaps I shouldn’t be speculating about the nature of the relationship between ZSR and its grantees, or their intentions, or their state of mind. Perhaps I ought to just stick to the demonstrable facts, debate the substance of public policy, and not cast aspersions on the intentions and character of others with whom I happen to disagree.

Perhaps they ought to do the same.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.