Millionaire James (Art) Pope poured money into helping a Republican strategy called RedMap succeed in North Carolina. The project is aimed at taking over state legislatures and then leveraging those victories to shift the balance of power in Washington.
Published: October 06, 2011
In early 2010, Republican strategists launched a new project called RedMap. The idea was to flip as many statehouses across the country to Republican majorities during the 2010 election cycle — particularly in states where congressional redistricting was pending.
"The thinking behind it, which was very ingenious, was that state legislative races are cheap, and if you can just put a bit of money into them and flip the statehouse, then you can control the redistricting process, which in turn gives the Republican Party a great advantage in putting members of Congress in the House of Representatives," says New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. "And most people don't pay a lot of attention to what's going on in the states. ... But it's kind of ground zero for where politics is playing out."
Mayer's latest article in The New Yorker looks at North Carolina, where Republicans gained a majority in both houses of the North Carolina Legislature during the last election cycle. She details how the state, expected to be a key battleground in the 2012 presidential election, flipped to Republican control with the help of both RedMap and a conservative multimillionaire named Art Pope.
Pope, the chairman and COO of a discount-store conglomerate, pumped millions of dollars into helping the RedMap strategy succeed during the 2010 state legislative races.
"He and his family members have basically poured money into the state's politics; $40 million is about what they've spent through their foundations," says Mayer. "About $35 million of that has gone towards pushing a far-right political agenda in North Carolina. In the 2010 state races, where people don't spend much money, he and the groups that he helped found — that were supposedly independent groups — spent $2.2 million. It doesn't sound like a lot nationally, but it can make all the difference in the context of one state. So basically what you're looking at is one very wealthy corporate captain who, when motivated enough, can exert enormous influence in a state."
The influence Pope wields in North Carolina can be seen in the results of the 2010 legislative election. Republicans won 18 of the 22 races Pope or his organizations targeted. Roughly 75 percent of spending by independent groups during North Carolina's state races came from accounts linked to Pope.
"They're supposed to be independent groups and nonpartisan for the most part, and yet so much of the money — when you take a close look at it — is linked back to this one man, Art Pope," says Mayer.
The money helped Republican candidates get their messages out through commercials and mailers. Many of the targeted Democrats across North Carolina were the subject of dozens of negative mass mailings. One candidate, Democrat John Snow, was targeted with ads that Mayer describes as "reminiscent of the Willie Horton ad that became notorious during the 1988 presidential campaign." The mailers insinuated that Snow voted for legislation that would let a convicted African-American murderer off death row. But Snow did no such thing.
"He was being targeted in a way that misconstrued his record," says Mayer. "He supports the death penalty. He is a conservative. And he was being described, as he said, 'in a very racially slanted way to look like a liberal.'"
On election night, Snow lost by less than 200 votes. His district had been pummeled with several hundred thousand dollars' worth of ads against him.
"What was interesting was that this was a small area of [North Carolina], but there were several hundred thousand dollars spent by outside groups linked to Art Pope [on this campaign]," says Mayer. "It wasn't that John Snow, this one candidate, mattered so much to Art Pope. It was that [Pope was] looking at the numbers with the RedMap project in mind. You have to target Democrats up and down the line and see if you can knock them out. And that's what they did."
On why Jane Mayer focused on North Carolina
"North Carolina is a really key state for 2012. The reason is because it's traditionally a state that teeters between Republican and Democratic. In 2008, Obama carried it. And he carried it very narrowly, with just over 14,000 votes. It is considered to be a must-win state for Obama in 2012. ... So what happens there may have a final effect ... on the presidential election."
On targeting Democrats vs. promoting Republicans
"Pope and the groups he was working with targeted 22 Democrats. Out of those, 18 of the Democrats went down. I should say that Pope and his associates say they target nobody. These were just ads about issues, and they were just to promote Republicans. They make a big distinction between targeting Democrats and promoting Republicans. But as someone who is from the outside looking at these things, it looked pretty harsh to me. ... He sees this whole operation as beneficial to voters. It gives them more choices and it helps them understand the records of the officeholders. He has many rationales for why more money is just better."
On how the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling opened the door for Pope to give money
"It gives a green light for corporations to spend money directly for and against candidates. It also makes clear to somebody like Art Pope that there aren't going to be legal repercussions for pouring money into campaigns. He would say he's just educating people about issues, but if he crosses a line, he's not going to get in trouble for doing so. It's enabled anybody with access to a corporate treasury to spend almost bottomless amounts of money. And it's a particularly helpful ruling for businessmen who own their own companies, which Art Pope does. ... They don't have to answer to stockholders."
On Pope's connections to David and Charles Koch, the subjects of a 2010 Mayer piece
"They've been friends for 25 years. They've coordinated to some extent. Art Pope goes to their secret confabs that the Koch brothers run twice a year that are by invitation only, where everyone is sworn to secrecy and not allowed to talk about what takes place. Pope has gone to many of them, and in those conferences, what they do is think about where to put their money. To a certain extent, what caught my interest is what the country is seeing is what looks like spontaneous combustion of far-right wing Tea Party politics, but behind that there are some very instrumental players who have great family fortunes, corporate fortunes — and who are coordinating to a certain extent."
On whether the Democrats are doing something similar to RedMap in North Carolina
"One of the Democrats that I interviewed down in North Carolina ... a professor down at Duke said the problem is [that] there are no Democrats like that in North Carolina. It's a real problem for the Democrats. He described the party there as getting a little flabby and disorganized. I don't know, in that state, whether there is a counterpart. I'm sure the Democrats are watching and trying to learn." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There's a new project aimed at engineering a Republican takeover of state legislatures with the expectation that will have a ripple effect on national politics. In the current edition of the New Yorker, my guest, Jane Mayer, writes about how this strategy has successfully played out in the battleground state of North Carolina, where the 2010 election left both chambers of the general assembly with firm Republican majorities for the first time since 1870.
Her article "State for Sale" is about a conservative multimillionaire named Art Pope. Pope, his family and their organizations targeted 22 legislative races. The Republicans they backed won 18 of those seats. Pope has financial ties to Americans for Prosperity, a national Tea Party group which was founded by David Koch. Last year, Jane Mayer wrote an article in the New Yorker about David and his brother Charles Koch and their role in funding conservative causes, including the Tea Party movement.
Jane Mayer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, the North Carolina strategy that you're writing about, of getting more Republicans in the state house, this is part of a larger plan called Red Map. What is Red Map engineered to do?
JANE MAYER: Well, Red Map was a project that was launched by something called the Republican State Leadership Committee, and the idea was to flip as many statehouses across the country to Republican majorities as was possible in 2010 and particularly those states where redistricting was going to take place, congressional redistricting.
And the thinking behind it, which was very ingenious, was that state races, things like, you know, state legislature races, are cheap, and if you can just put a bit of money into them and, again, flip the statehouse, then you can control the redistricting process, which in turn gives the Republican Party a great advantage in putting members of Congress in the House of Representatives.
GROSS: So how did you find out about Red Map? Is Red Map common knowledge, or is it more of a - you know, more secretive kind of strategy?
MAYER: It wasn't secret, but basically what I found was that most people don't pay a lot of attention to what's going on in the states, especially these days with the news media having to, you know, watch its budgets. There are an awful lot of statehouses that are no longer covered. And there's just not a lot of focus on what's going on at that granular level in this country.
It's kind of ground zero for where politics is playing out, but still not a lot of people watch it.
GROSS: Okay, so your focus is on North Carolina and this Red Map strategy in North Carolina to have Republicans take over the state legislature, you know, have a majority in the state legislature. Why is North Carolina so important within the larger Red Map strategy?
MAYER: Well, North Carolina is a really key state for 2012, the presidential election year. And the reason is because it's a state that traditionally teeters between Republican and Democratic. And in 2008, Obama carried it. And he carried it very narrowly, with just over 14,000 votes. And it is considered by almost any analyst you talk to to be a must-win state for Obama in 2012.
If you take a look at the map, he's going to have to try to carry it again. So what happens there may have a kind of a final effect, a very important, decisive effect in the presidential election. So I was kind of interested in seeing what was going on down there, and as much as anything, the reason I was looking at one state also was I wanted to see what happened after Citizens United, has it had any effect.
GROSS: So before we get to the answer to that question, what was the makeup of the statehouse in North Carolina before the Red Map strategy, and what is it now? How successful has the strategy been?
MAYER: It's been incredibly successful. And what happened was the legislature became majority Republican in both the House and the Senate for the first time since 1870. Basically Democrats have had at least one house in the legislature in North Carolina since, you know, somebody was jokingly saying, basically since General Sherman.
And so it's historic what happened down there. There's still a Democratic governor, Bev Purdue, but she's hanging on by a thread.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer, staff writer for the New Yorker, and her new article is called "State For Sale: A Conservative Multimillionaire Has Taken Control of North Carolina, One of 2012's Top Battlegrounds."
So the conservative millionaire mentioned in your headline is Art Pope, and he's the chair and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, which you describe as a discount store conglomerate. Give us a sense of how much money he and the foundations and organizations that he's behind have sunk into elections in North Carolina.
MAYER: Well, he has himself a family foundation with about $150 million in it, and over the past decade he and his company and, you know, a couple members of his family have basically poured money into the state's politics, $40 million is about what they've spent through their foundations. About $35 million of that has gone towards pushing a far-right political agenda in North Carolina.
And in this past election, the 2010, just the state races - again, these are little races where people don't spend much money, so a little money goes a long way - he and groups that he helped found, they were supposedly independent groups, spent $2.2 million.
And again, it doesn't sound like a lot nationally, but it can make all the difference in the context of one state. So basically what you're looking at is one very wealthy corporate captain who when motivated enough can exert enormous influence in a state.
GROSS: You write that three-quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina's 2010 state races came from accounts linked to this one man, Art Pope.
MAYER: Three-quarters of the spending, exactly, of outside groups. And they're supposed to be independent groups, and they're supposed to be nonpartisan for the most part, and yet they - they - so much of the money, when you take a close look at it, is linked back to this one man, Art Pope.
GROSS: I'm going to ask a very naive question: What are the advantages of having lots of money when you're running for the state legislature?
MAYER: Well, what you can do with that money is get your message out. You can pay for commercials and for mailers that, you know, just the stuff that comes into your house that looks like junk mail.
Many of the candidates that were targeted, the Democrats who were targeted, had as many as two dozen mailers sent out to people in their district trashing them. And after a while, it begins to sink in.
I mean the reason people spend money is because it works, and the effect is mostly a message that's carried through advertising, frequently a negative message.
GROSS: In this instance, in North Carolina, frequently false or misleading information about the opponents that the Republicans were targeting. Give us an example. Actually, I'm going to ask you for an example. You describe one of the mass-mailing campaigns as being reminiscent of the Willie Horton campaign. Describe that campaign.
MAYER: Well, yeah. There was a - one of the candidates was a state senator named John Snow. He was way out in the western corner of North Carolina, and he's a former judge, and he'd been a former prosecutor. He's probably as conservative as you can get as a Democrat without becoming a Republican.
Yet he was trashed in some of the advertisements for having voted for something called The Racial Justice Act in 2009, which gave Death Row prisoners a chance to appeal their convictions if they could prove that they had been convicted because of racism.
And what it did was it allowed judge to basically - a judge to look at the conviction again. And since John Snow was a judge and a very conservative one who believed in the death penalty and had prosecuted murders, he understood the importance of this legislation.
As he said to me, it was very important that if you're going to put somebody to death, that you give the convict due process and make sure that you've arrived at the right result. But because of that, there were mailers sent out about him in his district that showed a picture of a convicted African-American murderer and gave all these lurid details about how he'd been involved in a gang rape of a child and basically said John Snow wants to let this man out.
And so it was one of those kinds of campaigns that just hits people on the most elemental level of fear, and that's the button they were pushing.
GROSS: And John Snow did not want to let that particular man out.
MAYER: He didn't - no, of course - I mean the idea was to provide just, you know, a rational process of appeals if there was a false conviction, and it had nothing to do with letting guilty people out.
GROSS: Just not electrocuting them or putting them to death.
MAYER: Well, first of all, maybe commuting their death sentence, but if they were guilty, it wasn't even going to commute their death sentence. The idea was if - you know, there's a tremendous racial disparity in the people who are convicted on Death Row in this country, and it's long been noted that black convicts are much more likely to be given death sentences than white ones are. And it's a very touchy subject, particularly in the South.
And Snow was just bending over backwards to try to be fair and address this very well-known issue, but because of that, and voting for something that he thought was the right thing, he was being targeted in a way that misconstrued, as he said, his record. He supports the death penalty. He is a conservative. And he was being described, as he said, in a very racially slanted way to look like a liberal.
GROSS: So after being misrepresented in this mass mailing, the Democrat was defeated.
MAYER: The Democrat was defeated.
GROSS: The campaign seemed to have worked, to be effective.
MAYER: It did, and what was interesting was that the groups that - again, there were - this was - it's a small area of the country, but there were several hundred thousand dollars spent by outside groups linked to this one businessman - again, Art Pope - and it wasn't that John Snow, this one candidate, mattered so much to Art Pope. It was that he's looking at the numbers with the Red Map project in mind. You've got to just go and target Democrats up and down the line and see if you can knock them out. And that's what they did.
GROSS: Another Democrat that was targeted in this campaign through a group funded by Art Pope or one of his organizations was Chris Heagarty, a Democratic lawyer who ran for a legislative seat in Wake County, which includes Raleigh, where Pope lives.
And you describe Heagarty as having dark hair and a dark complexion, but he's white. So describe one of these ads that was used to target him.
MAYER: Well, one ad, they slapped a sombrero on his head, and then put words in Spanish on the ad that sort of said mucho taxes, adios, and then basically the gist was, at least Heagarty felt, to make him look Hispanic and to make him look alien. But in addition to that particular, you know, sort of racial subtext, they also targeted Heagerty supposedly for raising a billion dollars in taxes.
And the vote that this ad was describing was one that took place before Heagarty was even in office. He wasn't in the legislature at the time when the vote took place. So again, it was - it just - incredibly misleading. In that case, the groups allied with Pope were called out on it because it was such a factual mistake, and so they sent out another batch of mailings afterwards in which they apologized, they said sincerely for the mistake, and then went on to trash Heagarty for yet another thing.
So it was just a really negative-toned campaign, very ugly, very personal.
GROSS: Did Heagarty lose?
MAYER: He lost.
GROSS: So you have in this instance, correct me if I'm wrong, long-shot candidates who won because they had so much money behind them.
MAYER: It certainly looked that way, and it wasn't just a handful. It wasn't even just a dozen. Basically the - Pope and the groups that he was working with targeted 22 Democrats, and - or - and out of those, 18 of the Democrats went down. Now, just a point of order here - I should say that Pope and his associates say they target nobody. These were just ads about issues, and they were just to promote Republicans.
They make a big distinction between targeting Democrats and promoting Republicans. But as someone who was from the outside looking at this thing, it looked pretty harsh to me.
GROSS: Yeah, and Art Pope says his goal is to inform voters so that they can make an educated decision at the polls.
MAYER: Right, he sees this whole operation as beneficial to voters. He says it helps give more choices to voters, and it helps them understand the records, he says, of the officeholders. I mean, he has many rationales for why more money is just better.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker. We're talking about her article in the current edition. It's called "State for Sale: A Conservative Multimillionaire Has Taken Control in North Carolina, One of 2012's Top Battlegrounds." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, she's a staff writer for the New Yorker. We're talking about her article in the current edition. It's called "State for Sale: A Conservative Multimillionaire Has Taken Control in North Carolina, One of 2012's Top Battlegrounds."
The article is about a Republican strategy to take over state legislatures in key states, in other words to make the state legislatures Republican-dominated, and then to use that to re-engineer districts in such a way so that they're more likely to vote Republican. And this is also part of a strategy to have a Republican-dominated electorate in battleground states like North Carolina.
So let's talk about Art Pope and the organizations that he has funded and created that have been giving so much money to races in North Carolina. First of all, how did he make his fortune?
MAYER: Well, it was actually his grandfather and father who made a lot of the fortune. They built up an empire of dime stores, discount stores that now own and operate a chain - several chains of them throughout the Southeast. They're about - they have something like between 400 and 500 stores.
And Art Pope's father has since passed away, and Art Pope is now the head of this empire. And it's interesting because the stores are - they're probably familiar to some of the listeners. They're Roses, Maxways, Bargain Town. They're stores that sell a lot of very inexpensive goods and - mostly imports, and pay very low wages to the people who work in them, at least in - the starting-out wages are minimum wage.
They have very shrimpy benefits for their workers, if any, and they target - the stores target a particular demographic. They try to locate the stores in neighborhoods where people have low incomes and are at least 25 percent African-American population.
GROSS: So let's look at some of the groups that Art Pope has created or co-created and has donated a lot of money to. Let's start with Real Jobs North Carolina. What is the purpose of that?
MAYER: Real Jobs North Carolina is basically just a campaign group. It's an entity that exists to accept corporate donations, mostly from companies like Art Pope's and spend them in campaigns in the state. And it targeted the Democrats and ran nasty ads against them.
GROSS: How about the group Civitas Action?
MAYER: Civitas Action is an organization that is an offshoot of a think-tank that Art Pope runs, and 95 percent of the funds come from Pope and his other organizations, his business, whatever. And it again is - it exists to target Democrats.
GROSS: And what's the think-tank?
MAYER: The think-tank is one of several he runs. He's got a - he has this kind of amazingly well-oiled political machine which he would describe as not political. He would say it is nonpartisan and policy-oriented. It pushes a conservative agenda by studying issues, by educating people to help turn them into candidates, by helping train them as candidates and by judging the work of the legislature and basically publishing scorecards, and by doing a lot of polling too, and polls that usually end up pushing conservative issues.
GROSS: So is it more activist than the description that you just gave?
MAYER: I mean, you know, this is a matter of debate. I mean, one of the things that was complicated in writing about this subject is that the laws are really blurry at this point, and they're also really badly enforced when it comes to what's a violation of the IRS codes.
These entities are supposed to be social welfare organizations that are nonpartisan in their nature, and because of that, when people donate to them, they get tax write-offs. But the question of what's partisan and what's not is to some extent in the eyes of the beholder, and Art Pope would argue that these are nonpartisan entities.
GROSS: Jane Mayer will be back in the second half of the show. Her article "State For Sale" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. You'll find a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. We're talking about her article in the current edition of the New Yorker magazine called "State for Sale." It's about a conservative multimillionaire named Art Pope whose family and their organizations poured money into Republican candidates' campaigns in the 2010 state legislative races in North Carolina.
Both chambers of the general assembly now have firm Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. Mayer connects this to a larger strategy called Red Map, whose mission is to engineer a Republican takeover of state legislatures. The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision removed many restrictions on corporate spending in elections. Now, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision has really opened the doors for individuals like Art Pope and organizations like the ones he runs to give a lot more money to candidates. So would you explain the doors that Citizens United opened for Art Pope's groups?
MAYER: Basically what it does is it gives a green light to corporations to spend money directly for and against candidates. And it also makes clear to somebody like Art Pope that there are not going to be legal repercussions for pouring money into campaigns. And again, he would say he's just educating people about issues, but if he crosses a line, he's not going to get in trouble by doing so, since Citizens United.
In a way, what's it done is it's enabled anybody with access to a corporate treasury to spend almost bottomless amounts of money. And it's a particularly helpful ruling for businessmen who own their own companies, which Art Pope does. This is a privately held company, much like the Kochs have a privately held family company. So they have control over the treasuries and they don't have to answer to stockholders.
GROSS: Now, it's interesting that Art Pope helped fund the legal center run by James Bopp, the lawyer who made the initial filing in the Citizens United case. So does that have implications?
MAYER: Well, I thought so. I mean, you know, stepping back, what I was trying to look at is, where did this push to enable corporations to play such a bigger role come from and how's it affecting American politics? And one of the things that interested me is that the corporate captains like Art Pope are the ones who have funded the legal push to get rid of campaign finance rules and restrictions.
So from the start, he's been trying to gut public campaign financing. He calls it welfare for politicians. And what his critics say is he doesn't believe in public-financed elections. He believes in Pope-financed elections. And so, you know, it gives him a lot more power if he can spend all that money.
GROSS: So Pope also has a family foundation. Does the family foundation have to follow a different set of regulations than the other organizations that he's created?
MAYER: Well, yeah. I am not a tax lawyer. On the other hand, Art Pope is a lawyer, so he's very good at understanding all the fine print here. But basically he's - the first organization he and his family set up was called the John W. Pope Foundation, named after his father. And it's a private foundation, which means it's almost entirely financed by the Pope family. And when they give money to it or take money from their company and give it to this foundation, they can take tax write-offs.
They're slightly smaller tax write-offs than they could get from giving to a foundation that's not completely run by one family. And there are rules that have to do with how the money is spent. It can't be spent, again, on partisan activities. So they then take that money and send it out to about a half-dozen other organizations that Art Pope has also helped to found that are engaged in different areas of policy that push, again, his worldview, which is that there's too much government and there are too many taxes.
GROSS: So one of the reasons, it seems, for having different organizations and foundations is that they follow different tax laws. There's things one can do that another can't. So this way you can funnel money in all different directions and have the biggest reach.
MAYER: Exactly. And you can take different levels of write-offs. One of the - only one of the foundations that they run, the John Locke Foundation, it's called, has enough outside money to be called a public foundation as opposed to a private one. And that gets a little extra money, not just from the Pope Foundation, but in fact it's interesting. It gets money from the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who run Koch Industries. And it also gets some money from tobacco companies and a few others.
GROSS: Last year you wrote an article about the Koch brothers, two very wealthy brothers who have given a lot of support to the Tea Party movement and other very conservative causes. Art Pope is connected to the Koch brothers. What is the connection?
MAYER: Well, among other things, they've been friends for something like 25 years. And they've coordinated to some extent. Art Pope goes to - there are secret confabs that the Kochs run twice a year, and by invitation only, where everyone is sworn to secrecy and not allowed to talk about what takes place. But Pope has gone to many of them. And in those conferences, what they do is think about where to put their money.
And to a certain extent, what really caught my interest was that what the country is seeing is what looks like a kind of spontaneous combustion of far right-wing Tea Party politics. But behind that there are some very instrumental players who have great family fortunes, corporate fortunes, and who are coordinating to some extent. And Art Pope is one of the players, the Koch brothers are two more.
GROSS: So it sounds like the Koch brothers have given to Art Pope's group, but that Art Pope's group have given to the Koch brothers.
MAYER: Well, that's true. And he was praised recently by one of the Kochs for his contributions. There are a couple organizations that are national that really are kind of Tea Party organizing groups. And one of them is Americans for Prosperity, it's called. And it was founded by David Koch in 2004. And Art Pope is one of four directors. So he's a key player in this national Tea Party organizing effort. And he's worked very closely with the Kochs in doing so.
GROSS: Now, earlier you described how Pope made his fortune. His grandfather started these very cheap variety stores and now he's the head of that whole organization. And the stores locate in low-income neighborhoods. They pay low wages, slim benefits. What are some of the labor-related and business-related policies that he has backed?
MAYER: Well, Pope defines himself politically as a conservative and philosophically as what he calls a classical liberal, by which he means in the school of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. And he's also a - he's had flirtations with libertarianism as well. In his view it means almost no government, free markets, and what he calls the rule of law. And what that really means in sort of our modern era is he opposes things like minimum wage laws.
He opposes all kinds of regulations on corporations. And he also thinks there should be lower taxes on the super-rich and everyone else. And he also thinks that there should be fewer estate taxes. So he will say that his political positions have nothing to do with his self-interest and that they are just intellectually what he thinks are right. And yet much like the Kochs, again, what you can see is that this worldview dovetails very nicely with the interests of their businesses and themselves.
GROSS: Something else that Art Pope advocates is slashing education budgets, including the budgets of state universities in North Carolina. How effective has he been in that?
MAYER: Well, there's been a real war under way in North Carolina, and I guess elsewhere in the country too. But in North Carolina the university's budget has become a target of the Republican Party, and particularly the right end of the Republican Party. And Pope's organizations have kind of led the crusade. He's had some of his functionaries say things of the university, they need to starve the beast.
And I think they're this year going to cut something like 16 percent from the university budget, which is really upsetting to people on the other side because basically North Carolina's public university system has been seen as kind of the crown jewel of the state. And it always ranks near the top of public universities. And people who have been involved in education in the state are really worried that they're going to have to lay off a lot of teachers and cut down on scholarships for kids who need them - and in large classes, and cut a lot of classes.
GROSS: And he's offered to fund academic programs in subjects you say he thinks are worthwhile, like Western civilization and free-market economics. He contributed more than half a million dollars for free-market-related programs at North Carolina State. Is that the model that he wants, that classes should be taught in the subjects that wealthy patrons want to have taught?
MAYER: Well, that's certainly what his critics would say. His organizations are trying to slash the budgets more generally for the public universities but then fund the kinds of curriculum that they believe in. So for instance, he's provided a half million dollars, upwards of that, to the economics department of North Carolina State. And what that money pays for is to bring in conservative and free-market economic speakers who will, again, push the agenda that Art Pope believes in. So he'll fund the kinds of education he believes in and attack the kind that he doesn't.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. Her article "State for Sale" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for the New Yorker. We're talking about her article in the current edition that's called "State for Sale: A Conservative Multimillionaire Has Taken Control of North Carolina, One of 2012's Top Battlegrounds." And the millionaire in question here that she writes about is Art Pope. So now that the Red Map strategy appears to have succeeded in North Carolina, the strategy of having Republicans dominate the state house, and the strategy has succeeded in North Carolina with the help of funding by Art Pope and his organizations and foundations, Republicans in the state legislature have proposed new voting eligibility laws, laws that critics say would limit the voting rights largely of Democrats. What are these laws that have been proposed by Republicans in North Carolina?
MAYER: Well, what they're been talking about doing is requiring voters to produce state photo IDs. And that's one part of it. So you have to have the right kind of identification with you, which the critics say is much more of a problem generally for the - for students and poor people, who often tend to vote Democratic. Another thing that they're contemplating doing is closing down the window of time during which people can vote.
They had the polls open for extra time during 2008 so that people, for instance, who worked could vote on Sundays. And there were extra weeks open and so you could vote early. There's a push to close down this window. And you know, I interviewed Art Pope at some length. And he was pretty clear that he felt that the Democrats outfoxed the Republicans by allowing all of this kind of open voting in 2008. And that was one of the things that really gave Obama the edge.
So they've got it in their sights and they're planning to do whatever they can do to sort of close it off. I mean they're saying that it's all about ending voter fraud. But I don't think they've been able to produce any serious examples of vote fraud.
GROSS: And there are similar strategies in other states around the country. Is it part of a larger Republican strategy to try to outfox Democrats in the voting booth?
MAYER: It certainly seems so. There was an interesting study put out by the Brennan Center earlier this week that suggested that it is a national push by the Republican Party and that as many as five million voters could be disenfranchised this way. The reason that it matters so much in a place like North Carolina is that Obama only won the state by 14,000 votes. That's such a small margin that, you know, every vote really counts for both sides there. So the fight is going to be fierce on these issues.
GROSS: The Democrats have even decided to have the national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
MAYER: That's right. I mean, and I think that indicates, again, how important that state is to them.
GROSS: So on the ballot in 2012 will be a bill to ban gay marriage. Is that a constitutional amendment that they're proposing? A state constitutional amendment?
MAYER: It is a constitutional amendment they're proposing to ban gay marriage. And again, these are the kinds of sort of social issues - emotional hot-button issues that galvanize voters, and particularly the Democrats are saying the Republicans are doing it in order to get a lot of sort of social conservatives mad and to the polls.
GROSS: Is that an Art Pope issue? Is he funding that initiative at all?
MAYER: Specifically, gay marriage, he won't commit to where he stands on it one way or the other. I did ask him about it and he said he just - he won't say. But the point is that he's empowered the people who are making it an issue. And in many ways people watching him think that he dictates the agenda of the Republican Party in the legislature in North Carolina.
GROSS: Do you know if Democrats are trying similar strategies to the strategies you outline in your New Yorker article that Republicans are using?
MAYER: You know, I think that - one of the effects of Citizens United is it allows labor unions to spend just like corporations. And I do think that some of the labor unions hope to spend more money and throw their weight around. But one of the Democrats that I interviewed down in North Carolina, a man named Mac McCorkle, who is, I think he's a professor now at Duke, but he's been a Democratic consultant, said the problem is there are no Democrats like that, at least in North Carolina.
It's a real problem for the Democrats. He described the party there as gotten a little bit flabby and disorganized. And I just don't know, at least in that state, whether there is a counterpart in particular.
GROSS: So you say that unions can take advantage of the Citizens United case as well and start spending more money on candidates. But in a Southern state like North Carolina, where unions aren't strong - I'm not sure if unions are even allowed in North Carolina, are they?
MAYER: It's the least unionized state in America. Basically there's not a lot of union money to balance it in that part of the world.
GROSS: It would have to be national money.
GROSS: Your article is titled "State for Sale." Do you think there are more states becoming for sale in the same way that you describe North Carolina as having been for sale? And do you think we're becoming a nation for sale? Do you think that elections are getting more controlled by big money?
MAYER: Well, I think you certainly can see the numbers are just going up and up and up. And money's becoming more and more kind of spectacular in the sums that are being spent. So you know, I'd have to take a look at every state before I could say that it's, you know, the same story in every state. But certainly I think this is a cautionary tale. And you know, at the end of the day I think it poses some very deep questions in the country.
Because, you know, I go back to thinking about somebody like Louis Brandeis who said you can either have concentrations of great wealth or you can have a democracy, but you can't have both. And there's a tension between the idea of one man/one vote and spending huge buckets of money by a few people. And I guess we're sort of watching it play out out there.
GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for joining us.
MAYER: Thanks for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Jane Mayer's article, "State for Sale," is in the current edition of the New Yorker. There's a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.