Verme Strickland Blogmaster / December 27, 2011
STATE FOR SALE? (Don't think so. Dems jumpstart left-wing propaganda mill.)
A conservative multimillionaire has taken control
in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds.
So says Sanford/Hunt/Easley/Perdue (SHEP) gang.
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.”
Though conservatives like Pope took the lead in exploiting the new possibilities for corporate spending, the use of ostensibly nonpartisan advocacy groups has been proliferating on both the left and the right. Fred Wertheimer, who heads Democracy 21, another group that works for campaign-finance reform, says, “Tax-exempt organizations that are supposed to ‘promote the social welfare’ are being improperly used by Democratic and Republican supporters alike to engage in extensive campaign activities.” He just filed a complaint about the practice with the Internal Revenue Service. “The disastrous Citizens United decision has opened the door wide to influence-buying,” he says.
John Snow was not the only candidate in North Carolina to fall victim to such tactics. In Fayetteville, an hour south of Raleigh, Margaret Dickson, a sixty-one-year-old retired radio broadcaster and media executive who had been married for thirty-one years and had three grown children, was seeking reëlection to the North Carolina State Senate. She’d served seven years in the state’s General Assembly, had the backing of much of the business community, and considered herself a centrist, pro-business Democrat. Then came what she calls “the hooker ad.” Her Republican opponent released an ad suggesting that Dickson was using her seat to promote her personal investments. As Dickson describes it, “They used an actress with dark hair who was fair, like me. She was putting on mascara and red lipstick. She had on a big ring and bracelet.” A narrator intoned “Busted!” and the actress’s hand grabbed what appeared to be a wad of hundred-dollar bills. Dickson says, “The thrust of it was that I am somehow prostituting myself.” Another television ad, paid for by Real Jobs NC, described Dickson as a “Tax Twin” to Nancy Pelosi, saying that there was “not a dime’s worth of difference” between them. (Dickson’s voting record is substantially less liberal than Pelosi’s.) Dickson held a press conference to defend her record, but it was too late: “Those ads hurt me. I’ve been through this four times before, but the tone of this campaign was much uglier, and much more personal, than anything I’ve seen.”
Variety Wholesalers, Pope’s company, had contributed two hundred thousand dollars to Real Jobs NC. Roger Knight, the group’s executive director, told me that the Citizens United decision made it much easier to raise money, because “it allowed us to direct the fund-raising toward businesses.” He added that Pope provided the fund-raising effort with essential seed money. “Art would provide some of the guidance” on the attack ads, Knight said, and because Pope was on the board “he would approve them.” Pope says that he was dismayed when he saw the “hooker” ad, which was paid for by Dickson’s opponent. But he and three family members gave money to the opponent’s campaign, and Dickson argues that “political contributors make paid advertising possible” and “bear some responsibility.”
Dickson’s opponent, meanwhile, was championed by another corporate-backed group with financial ties to Pope, Americans for Prosperity, a national Tea Party group, which spent eleven thousand dollars disseminating its message. In the past decade, Pope and groups affiliated with him have contributed more than two million dollars to Americans for Prosperity. Pope is one of the organization’s four directors. Americans for Prosperity bills itself as an independent, nonpartisan “social welfare” organization. But, that fall in North Carolina, its ads, like those of Real Jobs NC, promoted only Republicans.
On Election Night, Dickson fell about a thousand votes short of victory in her district, which has a population of more than a hundred and fifty thousand. “I’ve never met Art Pope,” she says, but she is convinced that “Art Pope was after my seat. It wasn’t personal. They wanted control, and they were willing to say anything and do anything to achieve it.” That same fall, Chris Heagarty, a Democratic lawyer, ran for a legislative seat in Wake County, which includes Raleigh, where Pope lives. He had previously directed an election-reform group, and was not naïve about political money.
Yet even he was caught off guard by the intensity of the effort marshalled against him. Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action spent some seventy thousand dollars on ads portraying him as fiscally profligate, and Americans for Prosperity spent heavily on behalf of his opponent. One ad accused him of having voted “to raise taxes over a billion dollars,” even though he had not yet served in the legislature. Another ad depicted Heagarty, who has dark hair and a dark complexion, as Hispanic. (He is Caucasian.)
The ad was sponsored by the North Carolina Republican Party, to which Pope had contributed in 2008. Heagarty said, “They slapped a sombrero on a photo of me, and wrote, ‘Mucho Taxo! Adios, Señor!’ ” He said, “If you put all of the Pope groups together, they and the North Carolina G.O.P. spent more to defeat me than the guy who actually won.” He fell silent, then added, “For an individual to have so much power is frightening. The government of North Carolina is for sale.”
*** This New Yorker feature will be continued in an upcoming USA DOT COM post.