Opinion: Daily Journal

Foundation and Empire

RALEIGH – One of the most underreported stories in North Carolina politics is the pervasive influence of a large, politically connected foundation, created by a North Carolina family successful in business and run by a former state legislator.

Because of the millions of dollars this foundation gives every year to 501(c)(3) nonprofits with similar ideological leanings, the political debate in North Carolina has been transformed. The foundation’s grantmaking sustains policy research and legislative testimony. It sustains public-interest litigation and grassroots advocacy. It supports campus-based organizations and speaker series.

Its grantees appear frequently in the state’s news and editorial pages and on the airwaves. Its grantees operate a network of websites and blogs that provide real-time commentary and analysis of national, state, and local issues with a North Carolina twist. Some of its grantees also serve on state panels and study commissions, further expanding its influence on North Carolina policymaking.

Are the activities of this North Carolina foundation nefarious? Only if the prospect of free citizens spending money justly earned and freely entrusted to them to benefit the state they love can be nefarious.

That’s why I’ve never felt the need to question the right of the foundation in question, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, to expend millions of dollars a year on left-wing causes in North Carolina, or to doubt that the officers of the Winston-Salem based foundation mean well in their public-policy grantmaking.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the left-wing North Carolina politicians, activists, and commentators who have directed their ire – and increasingly their fire – at the Raleigh-based John William Pope Foundation for its similar, albeit far smaller, program of public-policy grantmaking to right-of-center organizations, including the John Locke Foundation.

Some years ago, the attacks on the Pope Foundation and its current chairman, former state Rep. Art Pope, were confined to a few immature college students and kooks. More recently, however, the attacks have come from prominent legislative leaders such as former House Speaker Jim Black (before he was marched off to the slammer) and current Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, currently seeking a useful foil to help him in a tough reelection campaign.

After conservatives won a school-board majority last fall in the state’s largest district, Wake County, and began to dismantle its unpopular and ineffective scheme of forced busing, the vitriol directed at the Pope family intensified. Once-reasonable liberal commentators began to froth at the mouth and equate the Pope Foundation and its grantees with the likes of Bull Connor. Exhibiting neither class nor a rudimentary understanding of the reality of public policy philanthropy in North Carolina, they whined that the Pope Foundation had used its resources to gain an inordinate influence on the state through “puppets” who did Art Pope’s bidding as part of a dastardly scheme to destroy all government institutions.

There are good reasons why most of the political class in Raleigh, while far from conservative, did not join in with the Left’s clumsy attempt to bash the Pope family. For one thing, many North Carolina politicians, journalists, and community leaders of all political persuasions know Art Pope personally. During his four terms in the NC House, they knew him as a thoughtful Republican legislator who maintained good friendships with Democratic colleagues and often sought opportunities for bipartisan collaboration. Outside of public office, they knew him as a man about as suited to the role of megalomaniacal Emperor Palpatine as John Edwards would be to the role of chaste Obi-Wan Kenobi.

If Art hadn’t joined his father’s retail business and helped it grow to be one of North Carolina’s largest private companies, he would probably have become a college professor – or maybe even a think tank president. Scary he’s not.

I’ve known Art for a quarter of a century. We’re friends and colleagues. Without his leadership and the strong support of his late father John Pope, the John Locke Foundation would not exist. We have similar views on most issues. But does Art Pope tell me or JLF would to do? No. As chairman of the Pope Foundation, does he dictate the programming choices of the foundation’s grantees? No.

For example, take a look at the odd situation that developed Monday when former Bush speechwriter David Frum came to Raleigh to deliver a lecture at N.C. State University. The lecture series is funded by the Pope Foundation, so a small group of college kids, egged on by the state NAACP, showed up to protest the – well, it was never exactly clear, but they did engage in a few bars of standard protest chant before exiting to derisive applause.

Frum then proceeded to deliver a speech criticizing the conservative movement and expressing views that were, for the most part, antithetical to Art Pope’s. Did N.C. State feel the need to “clear” its choice for the 2010 Pope lecture with its grantmaker? No. Will N.C. State be punished for inviting an interesting and provocative speaker whose views aren’t the same as its grantmaker’s? No.

That’s how grown-ups act. The Left might want to take notes.

As for the view that the Pope Foundation’s millions give it disproportionate influence over North Carolina public policy, the notion is just misinformed. The last time I ran the numbers, from a couple of tax years ago, total spending by policy-oriented 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofits in North Carolina was about $30 million. Left-of-center groups accounted for three-quarters of that total.

The Pope Foundation’s annual giving in all categories is just over $10 million. The Reynolds Foundation, headed by former state Sen. Leslie Winner and run by Democratic politicians and activists for decades, gives about twice that amount every year. If you limit the analysis just to the grants the two foundations make to North Carolina policy nonprofits, the numbers shrink a lot but the Reynolds Foundation still far outspends the Pope Foundation. What’s more, there are many more North Carolina grantmakers like Reynolds than there are like Pope.

Do I question the right of the Reynolds Foundation and other North Carolina philanthropies run by left-wing activists to support the causes they believe in? Not at all. Besides, I’ve always welcomed the challenge of competing with larger, better-funded sparring partners. But when these liberal donors actively encourage their grantees to make personal attacks on Art Pope and other conservative donors, as I have good reason to believe is the case here, I do tend to question their intentions and integrity.

They should know better. Most North Carolinians do know better, or more likely don’t even know what we’re talking about. The personal attacks aren’t going to work. But they are going to hurt – the ones hurling them, mostly.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation