An array of conservative groups that attempt to shape public policy and influence elections in North Carolina are overwhelmingly controlled by their prime benefactor, Art Pope, says a new report in Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute For Southern Studies.
Facing South reviewed the tax records of five conservative research and advocacy groups, all of them created entirely or in part by Pope, and found he is a board member of all but one and has provided 80 percent or more of the funding for each group.
The five groups examined are: Capitol Monitor, The John W. Pope Civitas Institute, the John Locke Foundation, the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
The report, written by Facing South publisher Chris Kromm, describes Pope’s extensive management and financial roles as “a level of purse-string power so dominant that the Internal Revenue Service classifies all but one of [the groups] as a ‘private foundation,’ a relatively rare designation used only by non-profits who disproportionately rely on a single benefactor.”
Pope, a former state representative and owner of Variety Wholesalers Inc, a Raleigh-based operator of several discount retail chains, has expanded his advocacy of conservative causes and is now venturing beyond North Carolina. He is a board member of the national conservative advocacy group, Americans For Prosperity and a leading donor to its sister group, the AfP Foundation.
The proliferation of conservative think tanks and political funding groups that attack Democrats has drawn criticism from progressives. They contend that the groups push the agendas of corporations and wealthy individuals while presenting themselves as civic-minded research centers or grassroots organizations.
Kromm writes that North Carolina conservatives welcome Pope’s support but “chafe at the idea that the retail magnate and Republican philanthropist controls them.”
But Kromm concludes, “[I]n the end, the record shows that North Carolina’s leading conservative organizations are uniquely arranged in a way that offer Art Pope significant control over their money, policies and future.”
John Hood, president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, reacted sharply to the Facing South report. He said in an interview with the North Carolina Independent News that the report is part of an “orchestrated attempt to make Art Pope a villain.”
“This is a distraction from the issues because the left has so mismanaged those issues,” Hood said. “This is an attempt to change the debate from the issues to character assassination.”
Hood questioned why the media has not raised similar control issues concerning the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a contributor to the Institute For Southern Studies and The Justice Center. The NC Justice Center is a Raleigh-based public interest group that advocates for low- and middle-income people and includes NC Policy Watch, a source of progressive analysis of government issues.
Hood said Leslie Winner, a former Democratic state senator and now executive director of the foundation, “steers a larger amount” of money than Pope’s groups.
Winner said her role is not comparable to Pope’s. She said she is not personally wealthy and is not contributing large sums of money to causes. She added that her recommendations for funding must be approved by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation board.
“I do what an executive director is supposed to do. I make recommendations, but the board makes all the decisions,” she said.
Winner said the 75-year-old foundation supports of a wide variety of efforts with grants that vary greatly in size, but added, “We don’t fund any political activities. None.”
While noting that progressive groups have some common support, Hood said he accepts that they represent their own thinking rather than echoing their benefactors.
Hood said conservatives who work for Pope’s groups should also be regarded as thinking for themselves and doing original work rather than serving a political megaphone for Art Pope.Tags: Art Pope, Civitas Foundation, Facing South, John Hood, The John Locke Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation