A conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds
-by Jane Mayer
October 10, 2011- In the spring of 2010, the conservative political strategist Ed Gillespie flew from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh, North Carolina, to spend a day laying the groundwork for REDMAP, a new project aimed at engineering a Republican takeover of state legislatures. Gillespie hoped to help his party get control of statehouses where congressional redistricting was pending, thereby leveraging victories in cheap local races into a means of shifting the balance of power in Washington. It was an ingenious plan, and Gillespie is a skilled tactician—he once ran the Republican National Committee—but REDMAP seemed like a long shot in North Carolina. Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and remained popular. The Republicans hadn’t controlled both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly for more than a century. (“Not since General Sherman,” a state politico joked to me.) That day in Raleigh, though, Gillespie had lunch with an ideal ally: James Arthur (Art) Pope, the chairman and C.E.O. of Variety Wholesalers, a discount-store conglomerate. The Raleigh News and Observer had called Pope, a conservative multimillionaire, the Knight of the Right. The REDMAP project offered Pope a new way to spend his money.
That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis—an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party—had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reëlected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.
Snow recalls, “I voted to help build a pier with an aquarium on the coast, as did every other member of the North Carolina House and Senate who voted.” But a television attack ad presented the “luxury pier” as Snow’s wasteful scheme. “We’ve lost jobs,” an actress said in the ad. “John Snow’s solution for our economy? ‘Go fish!’ ” A mass mailing, decorated with a cartoon pig, denounced the pier as one of Snow’s “pork projects.” It criticized Snow for “wasting our tax dollars,” citing his vote to “spend $218,000 on a Shakespeare festival,” but failing to note that this sum represented a budget cut for the program, which had been funded by the legislature since 1999.
In all, Snow says, he was the target of two dozen mass mailings, one of them reminiscent of the Willie Horton ad that became notorious during the 1988 Presidential campaign. It featured a photograph of Henry Lee McCollum, a menacing-looking African-American convict on death row, who, along with three other men, raped and murdered an eleven-year-old girl. After describing McCollum’s crimes in lurid detail, the mailing noted, “Thanks to arrogant State Senator John Snow, McCollum could soon be let off of death row.” Snow, in fact, supported the death penalty and had prosecuted murder cases. But, in 2009, he had helped pass a new state law, the Racial Justice Act, that enabled judges to reconsider a death sentence if a convict could prove that the jury’s verdict had been tainted by racism. The law was an attempt to address the overwhelming racial disparity in capital sentences.
“The attacks just went on and on,” Snow told me recently. “My opponents used fear tactics. I’m a moderate, but they tried to make me look liberal.” On Election Night, he lost by an agonizingly slim margin—fewer than two hundred votes.
After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow—a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the “Go fish!” ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s “pork projects.” The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each—the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.
Snow, whose defeat was first chronicled by the Institute for Southern Studies, a progressive nonprofit organization, told me, “It’s getting to the point where, in politics, money is the most important thing. They spent nearly a million dollars to win that seat. A lot of it was from corporations and outside groups related to Art Pope. He was their sugar daddy.”