Special Report: Mapping influence in North Carolina

Every day, groups across the political spectrum jostle to get their issues heard and influence lawmakers. Who are the biggest influence groups? How are they connected to each other? And aside from their agenda, are conservative groups on the political right different from progressive groups on the left -- and if so, how?

Using North Carolina as a case study, in summer 2012 the Institute for Southern Studies launched "Mapping Influence in North Carolina," a project exploring the state's political networks on the left and right.

The report -- the first of its kind -- offers a fascinating glimpse into the people and organizations that vie to influence state policy. The study also reveals key differences between right- and left-leaning groups in North Carolina.

"Mapping Influence in North Carolina" looks at the 10 biggest North Carolina-based groups on the left and right (broadly defined), measured by size of income using the latest available data (for nonprofits, their most recent public IRS tax filings; for political groups, their 2011-2012 election cycle campaign finance reports). Groups that are connected -- for example, a nonprofit organization that has a sister group involved in elections -- are grouped into clusters.*

The project also looks at the board leadership of the 10 largest N.C. groups on the right and left, and highlights the circle of leaders who appear on multiple boards.

While only a cursory snapshot of the conservative and progressive networks in North Carolina, the report does point to some interesting characteristics of N.C. influence groups and the differences between them:

* N.C. GROUPS LEANING TO THE RIGHT tend to be dominated by business interests. The two biggest clusters of conservative groups in N.C. are the Employers Coalition of North Carolina and the N.C. Chamber, which back an agenda -- and if they have political arms, candidates -- that favor business-friendly legislation and largely resist taxes, regulations and workers' unions.

Other leading conservative groups -- such as the John Locke Foundation and the John W. Pope Civitas Institute -- have a libertarian slant that complements the pro-corporate outlook of other right-leaning interest groups in the state.

The biggest exception is the N.C. Family Policy Council, which focuses on "values" issues like gambling and abortion; the group was a leading proponent of the recently-passed constitutional amendment in N.C. banning gay marriage and certain types of civil unions.

This pro-business agenda has a powerful voice in North Carolina politics. The report also includes a list of N.C.'s registered lobbyists for 2011-2012 [pdf], which reveals that about 75 percent of the clients represented are businesses or business associations. While many of these companies and groups don't fit neatly on the left/right political spectrum, this does give a sense of the resources and influence that business groups are able to wield in state politics.

* N.C. GROUPS LEANING TO THE LEFT tend to work on a broader range of issues and have a less defined agenda. Overall, the progressive landscape is marked by a larger number of groups, many with disparate single-issue missions.

For example, among the top 10 groups on the left-leaning side are issue-specific organizations like the N.C. Coastal Federation, Planned Parenthood, the N.C. Institute for Minority Economic Development and Disability Rights North Carolina.

Labor unions aren't as big in N.C. as other states; however, two of the top progressive-leaning groups are labor associations: the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which has crossed the aisle to support Republican lawmakers on such issues as the state budget, and the N.C. Association of Educators.

Many of North Carolina's progressive groups are loosely organized into Blueprint North Carolina**, a state-wide network. The list of Blueprint members, also featured in the report, highlights the diverse range of issues -- from the death penalty and housing to AIDS advocacy and conservation -- and grassroots nature of many groups that comprise the state's progresive influence network.

* BOARD LEADERSHIP: There is a small degree of overlap among the board members of the largest influence groups in N.C. On the top 10 lists of both the progressive and conservative organizations, there are three individuals who sit on two boards on each side.

The exception is leading conservative donor Art Pope, whose family foundation not only largely funds several of the biggest conservative groups but who also sits on more boards than any person analyzed in the report. Pope is a board member of four of the 10 biggest conservative groups (five if the Civitas Institute and its sister organization Civitas Action are counted separately).

While it was not always possible to determine the race or gender of board members of the organizations analyzed in the report, progressive groups tended to show a higher level of such diversity than their conservative counterparts.

For full maps and more details, visit "Mapping Influence in North Carolina."

* Note: In most cases, the most recent available IRS tax filings for nonprofits are for 2010. National groups with a large presence in North Carolina, like Americans for Prosperity or the Environmental Defense Fund, were omitted because of the difficulty in determining how much of their national resources are focused on North Carolina.

** Disclosure: The Institute for Southern Studies is a member of Blueprint North Carolina.