On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 11, as the North Carolina House jousted over details of the state budget, Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican attorney from the state's mountain region, decided to help the legislature reach a compromise on a thorny problem.
At issue was the N.C. Public Campaign Fund, a popular program launched in 2003 to help free judges from relying on deep-pocketed -- and potentially compromising -- special interest donors to get elected. Eighty percent of eligible judges -- conservatives and liberals -- used the voluntary program, which awarded candidates a grant to help run their campaign if they raised at least 350 small donations and agreed to strict spending limits.
Ideologues hated the public financing option, but judges and even many conservatives thought it boosted public confidence in the courts. In May, members of the state's Court of Appeals took the unusual step of publicly calling on legislative leaders to keep the program. A dozen newspapers praised its success, and two Republican officials from West Virginia came to explain why their state had just adopted the North Carolina model.
Despite this support, the Republican House budget, like those of the Senate and governor, called for raiding the fund and killing its two sources of money, a $3 check-off on the state tax form and a $50 fee paid by attorneys. But Rep. Jordan had a middle-ground amendment: End the tax check-off and siphon $3.5 million from the fund, but keep the lawyers fees to more slowly replenish the fund at no cost to taxpayers. With other Republicans pledging support, it looked like Jordan's compromise would pass with ease.
Then Art Pope showed up.
Soon after Jordan's amendment was filed the next day, the multimillionaire GOP donor and budget director for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory made a rare visit to the General Assembly and took Jordan aside. When the impromptu meeting with Pope ended, Jordan made an abrupt U-turn and dropped the amendment.
The amendment died -- and with it chances of saving North Carolina's pioneering judicial program.
Art Pope took a direct role in killing the landmark election reform measure even though his presence as budget director wasn't needed, since Jordan's amendment was revenue-neutral. His involvement highlights the unique power Pope holds as both a top campaign donor to state lawmakers and the highest ranking member of McCrory's cabinet.
It also marks the culmination of a more than decade-long crusade by Pope to dismantle judicial public financing and other reforms that aim to curb the clout of big donors like himself in North Carolina politics.
A CASE STUDY IN INFLUENCE
Perhaps it's not surprising that Rep. Jordan buckled to Pope's pressure: The GOP lawmaker from North Carolina's 93rd district is a case study in Pope's outsized political influence in the state.
That year, Jordan received $16,000 in campaign contributions from Pope and his close family, the maximum allowed by law. On top of that, three groups backed by Pope -- Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC -- shoveled more than $91,500 into election spending on Jordan's behalf, bringing Pope's total investment in launching Jordan's legislative career to more than $107,000.
But Pope's connection to Rep. Jordan goes back even further. In the late 1990s, Jordan spent two years as research director at the John Locke Foundation, one of a network of conservative groups in North Carolina largely funded by Art Pope's family foundation.
And Locke and other Pope-backed groups have spearheaded the attack on North Carolina's judicial program from the very beginning.
POPE'S PERSONAL CRUSADE
During his last term as a state legislator in 2002, Art Pope led the fight against the bill that would go on to create the N.C. Public Campaign Fund. When Pope left the legislature that year, the voice of opposition to public judicial financing shifted to Pope's network of conservative advocacy groups, which receive more than 85 percent of their income from Pope's foundation.
The Locke Foundation, Rep. Jordan's former employer, has received more than $27 million from Pope's foundation and has been an especially outspoken opponent of the program. Since 2004, Locke has published more than 35 reports and commentaries bashing judicial public financing as "coercive" support of "tax-payer funded" campaigns -- an inaccurate claim, since much of the fund's money comes from attorney fees -- and "welfare for politicians."
At times, Locke's attacks have descended into paranoia. Despite the program's success in expanding opportunities for women, African Americans and other judicial candidates who lack private wealth, Locke has portrayed the program as an Orwellian assault on free speech: "Taxpayer financing is just the first step," a 2006 editorial warned. "Next on the agenda is regulating, and if possible restricting, independent political speech."
As Republicans took power, the Locke Foundation moved aggressively to make the demise of the judicial fund a top legislative priority. In 2011, the group included ending the program in its "first 100 days" legislative agenda. In a January 2013 commentary, Locke president John Hood said that while "North Carolina policymakers will have a lot on their plate in 2013," one of their first steps should be to repeal the judicial program.
The John W. Pope Civitas Institute, another conservative think tank almost entirely funded by Pope, has been equally strident. This spring, Civitas-penned editorials denounced "tax-payer financed campaigns" as an assault on "free speech" -- although the program didn't stop Civitas' sister group, Civitas Action, from spending $74,500 to help conservative N.C. Supreme Court candidate Paul Newby in 2012. Other Civitas screeds have denounced the program as an "immoral" and "insidious violation of liberty."
Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, has also made gutting the fund a top priority. Pope's foundation is the second-biggest funder of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and Pope until recently was one of AFP's four national board members.
In its 2013-2014 legislative agenda, AFP's North Carolina chapter echoed Civitas and Locke in calling for "Ending all 'welfare for politicians,' known as taxpayer-funded elections." And Dallas Woodhouse, the AFPNC director, has been lobbying members of the General Assembly to end the program -- pressure that carries particular weight given the more than $750,000 Americans for Prosperity has spent on state-level elections in North Carolina during the last two cycles.
POPE FINISHES THE JOB
More than a decade after Pope lost his battle to defeat the N.C. Public Campaign Fund on the floor of the General Assembly, this year he found himself well-positioned to end the program once and for all.
It wouldn't be easy. Every leading newspaper in the state wrote editorials backing the program. Former governors Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Holshouser, a Republican, joined to voice support. Jesse Helms' old GOP polling firm the Tarrance Group found that 68 percent of North Carolinians would be less likely to back a legislator who “supported an electorate system where money would have a greater role in judicial elections."
But Pope and his network were in control. After Pope's family gave $20,000 to Pat McCrory's campaign, and Pope's groups Americans for Prosperity and Real Jobs NC spent $530,000 on McCrory's behalf, Pope was installed first as a leader in McCrory's transition team then to one of the most powerful posts in the state: the governor's budget director.
From his new perch in the governor's office, Pope quickly got to work. His first budget, released in March, included less draconian cuts to social programs than some had feared. But Pope made sure to single out at least one program for elimination: judicial public financing. And then, as Rep. Jordan discovered this week, he would take whatever steps were necessary to guarantee North Carolina legislators fell in line.
What will North Carolina's courts look like now that Pope has succeeded in his decade-long mission? During his visit to North Carolina in May, John F. McCuskey, the conservative former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice, had this to say about his state's experience:
Money was having an inordinate influence in the selection of our highest judicial offices in our state Supreme Court. The perception of judges being bought, rather than acting impartially, had created a great distrust among the populace.
When asked if he had talked about judicial financing with Jordan, Pope said as budget director he discussed numerous pending amendments to budget bills.
"And of course the governor's recommended budget proposed to stop giving taxpayer dollars to political campaigns," Pope said in an email. "That position has not changed, and I have stated this to the legislators, members of the public, and organizations such as Common Cause when they have asked about the issue."
"It is my general policy not to repeat individual conversations with legislators," Pope added. "Rep. Jordan, of course, is free to discuss his amendment, and any conversations he had with me, Common Cause or others about it."
Institute policy intern Marion Johnson contributed research assistance for this report.
IMAGE: North Carolina Republican donor and Gov. Pat McCrory's budget director, Art Pope.
(Full disclosure: Chris Kromm's wife, Melissa Price Kromm, is executive director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, one of several groups that support election reforms in North Carolina.)