Art Pope is controversial. I'd heard his name used in a context similar to Darth Vader while knowing only two things about him; that he is (A) very rich, and (B) spends his money on right wing causes throughout North Carolina.
Beyond that, I'll admit, I knew very little.
While only now have I done some research on the fellow, I'm sure most of those who traffic "BlueNC" are way ahead of me on this. However, for those as uninformed as I am there's an interesting article titled "The Knight of The Right" by Rob Christiansen which appeared in the N&O last January.
It's a good place to start if you want to do a quick study on the man and learn what motivates him. Although that question, even if you asked Pope himself, would be fairly easy to answer. What he wants can be boiled down very quickly to two things... lower taxes and less government.
Art Pope may be miserly when it comes to taxes, but not when it comes to underwriting his political point of view. There, he puts his money where is mouth is. In Christiansen's article you'll read that he spends $700,000 here, $9 million there, and $53 million over there to promote his various causes. Those causes that you learn about, however, are only those which are classified as tax exempt - and therefore which require public reporting. How Pope uses his vast fortune to promote those causes where no public financial reporting is required is up to anyone's guess.
But I'd guess a lot.
As I read those figures I was astounded. It's the same sort of feeling I get whenever I read about the Pentagon's budget. It's not just the wealth he spends on conservative politics that's impressive, what he spends on himself is pretty impressive too. Here in North Carolina he owns two homes: one valued on the tax rolls at over $2 million and the other at nearly $1 million. The value of other property owned elsewhere is anyone's guess.
But I'd guess a lot.
So where does all of this money come from?
It seems that the sole source of his fabulous wealth comes from his family's ownership of Variety Wholesale headquartered in Henderson, North Carolina. According to the N&O this is a retailing conglomerate consisting of "stores in hundreds of small towns across the South."
I may not be the best informed businessperson in my corner of North Carolina, but it occurred to me, "What is Variety Wholesale, and why do I know so little about it?"
I decided to go to the company's website and there I found that the company operates under a multitude of names like Roses, Bargain Town, Super 10 and Maxway. Admittedly, these names are slightly better known to me, but still, they're hardly the kind of stores where I spend much of my time shopping.
And why? Perhaps it's because I'm not quite as poor as the average patron for these small format, low price, primarily rural retail outlets. These are stores that feature overstocks, distressed product and discontinued items at very low prices. According to the company's own website, Variety Wholesale looks only for store locations "in second and third generation shopping centers" within communities that have a "minimum 25% African-American population" and "a median household income of $40,000 or less."
And care to wonder how much the employees in these down-market stores make per hour? That research I have not done, but I'm confident there aren't many families being supported solely on the wage of a Maxway employee.
So at the end of my small effort to learn more about Art Pope I'm left to speculate about a man who takes his fortune from those at the very bottom of the financial ladder, and then who gives so ferociously to reduce his taxes and fight against initiatives like North Carolina's increase of the minimum wage.
Perhaps the invidious comparison of Art Pope with Darth Vader isn't all that far off the mark.