Raleigh, N.C. — State budget chief Art Pope came face to face with one of his most vocal critics Monday morning while responding to a planned picketing campaign targeting his family's chain of discount stores.
The state chapter of the NAACP and several left-leaning groups held a news conference outside the state budget office to announce the campaign targeting Variety Wholesalers, which includes Roses, Maxway and other stores.
Pope is chief executive of Variety Wholesalers, and he also is a major political donor to conservative causes, both on his own and through third-party groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Civitas Institute.
Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP president, says Pope has supported "extreme and regressive public policy," including cuts to unemployment benefits and requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Barber says such policies will hurt people who shop at Pope's stores, so picketers will pass out that information to shoppers.
"Economics is ethics. How we use our money is a moral issue," Barber said. "There is a clear record of his intentional utilization of his money to manipulate the system and the political process in North Carolina in ways that can clearly be seen are counter to the principle of the good of the whole and counter to the principle of justice and fairness and equality for all."
A banner at the news conference bore the heading "How Roses and Maxway Keep People Poor."
"We think his customers should know how their money is being used against them," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.
"Art Pope is the poster child for big money influence in our democracy," said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies. "There are many donors and special interest groups vying for influence in this state, but there is no single person who has spent as much money or has orchestrated a political machine on the scale of Art Pope’s empire in North Carolina.
"That’s not an opinion – or as Art Pope may have you believe, a personal attack. It’s a fact," Kromm said. "Over the last decade, Pope has pumped nearly $50 million into his political machine."
Pope came out to the news conference to give reporters his side of the debate. He has a constitutional right to support any political cause he chooses, he said, and he's done nothing wrong or illegal, regardless of how much Democrats try to demonize him.
"I certainly hope we don’t get to the point where conservatives and Republicans start protesting Democratic donors and their businesses the way the far left is trying to deter me from exercising my rights and trying to hurt our customers and hurt our employees," he said.
Variety Wholesalers provide much-needed jobs, and his foundation gives to a wide range of charities, not just political groups, he said.
"We give back to the community. We help alleviate the symptoms of poverty through traditional humanitarian help," he said. "We’re one of the largest charitable givers in the Research Triangle."
Barber and Pope exchanged words as Barber walked toward Pope's office to deliver a letter.
"We want to put a stop to the use of wealth to influence policies in a negative way," Barber said. "That's why it's not a boycott. It's a picket."
"If I gave to the North Carolina Justice Center and Democracy North Carolina instead of the John Locke Foundation, that would be OK?" Pope asked.
"It's the policies; it's not the giving," Barber responded. "Let's meet."
"Only if I support your policies," Pope shot back.
Pope said he and Barber share the goal of eliminating poverty – they just disagree on the best way to do it.
"Creating an economy that’s growing and is prosperous, that creates jobs. That helps eliminate poverty," Pope said.