Painting North Carolina Redder

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2010

While working for the governor of North Carolina in the 1980s, Art Pope became frustrated by a lack of organizations able to supply well-developed ideas for conservative political reform. After leaving government, he decided to do something about it. Over the next three decades he used his family foundation to donate more than $60 million (earned through the family’s privately owned chain of discount stores) to build a robust network of think tanks and advocacy groups in North Carolina. In the process, he turned North Carolina into a swing state where conservative ideas and policymakers are able to match liberal ideas and politicians.

First, Pope created the John Locke Foundation in 1990. The Raleigh center has become one of the most influential state-based free-market think tanks in the country. Legislators now routinely look to the group for alternative state budgets and suggestions on changing taxes. In 2007, its work helped voters around the state defeat a series of county-level tax-hike initiatives. In 2010, former Democratic governor Mike Easley was convicted on federal corruption charges, in part due to the investigative work of the Carolina Journal, published by JLF.

With an annual budget of about $3.5 million, the think tank now has a variety of donors, but the John William Pope Foundation (named for Art’s father) has remained its major underwriter. Art Pope has also funded the Civitas Institute (which promotes grassroots activism), the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law (which litigates), and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (which monitors colleges and universities in the state). Left-of-center policy groups still outnumber right-of-center groups by two or three to one in North Carolina, but Pope has created a real competition of ideas in the state.

This new public-policy infrastructure gradually helped change the climate for political reform in North Carolina. In the 2010 elections, voters flipped both the state Senate and House from Democrat to Republican control—the first time since 1870 that a Republican majority had existed in both chambers. In the 2012 elections, voters also picked a Republican governor for the first time in 20 years, and elected three new Republicans to Congress, shifting their state’s representation in the U.S. House from 7-6 D to 9-4 R.

Art Pope took a leave from the foundation to become the new governor’s budget director, and the state government enacted a burst of dramatic reforms over the next two years—flattening and cutting taxes, reducing the growth rate of the state budget, and reforming education. In the 2014 elections, this new political alignment was largely ratified by North Carolina voters, and the incumbent Democrat U.S. senator was defeated by a Republican.