Liberals who have finished frothing about the activities of the Koch foundations then try to find donors like the Kochs. Often their gaze turns to North Carolina, where Art Pope is simultaneously the budget director in the administration of Republican governor Pat McCrory and the head of the John William Pope Foundation, which has created and funds four conservative think tanks, including the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank for North Carolina, and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, which critiques colleges and universities.

Three years ago the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote a heavy-breathing, mendacious piece about Art Pope, largely based on charges made by lavishly funded North Carolina leftist groups. My colleague Scott Walter refuted Mayer in this 2011 Philanthropy Daily piece and followed it in 2013 with an expose of how such leftist groups as Blueprint North Carolina were engaging in questionable and possibly illegal electioneering.

But just because the conspiratorial view of the Pope Foundation is invalid does not mean the activities of the Pope Foundation and its think tanks are not worth writing about. Matea Gold, in this Washington Post piece, provides a more balanced critique of Art Pope and the Pope Foundation.

(Disclosure note: in 2011, the Pope Center published Games Universities Play, a monograph I wrote which advises donors on the best way to give to colleges. I have also written three op-eds for the Pope Center. In 2010, the Locke Foundation hosted a lunch for me to promote my book Great Philanthropic Mistakes. I wasn’t paid by the foundation but they were very nice to me and all authors ought to make Raleigh a stop on their book tours.)

“There is no one in North Carolina, or likely in all of American politics, quite like Art Pope,” Gold writes. “He is not just a wealthy donor seeking to influence politics from the outside, nor just a government official shaping it from within. He is doing both at the same time.”

Well, actually, the nearest comparison to Pope is, like it or not, Michael Bloomberg. When Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, he always had a donor nearby (i.e. noted philanthropist Michael Bloomberg) to fund his projects. Art Pope isn’t the governor, he’s the governor’s budget director, but the synergies are somewhat similar, if on a smaller scale.

As you might expect, the goals of the Pope-funded think tanks and the personal goals of Art Pope are similar. The McCrory administration froze teacher salaries and eliminated tenure and the unions dutifully screamed. The administration also tried to reduce the growth of government and people dependent on the state weren’t happy.

Gold also delves into the relations between Art Pope and the University of North Carolina. Pope is a generous donor to the school, and endowed a chair in the university’s cancer center. But the Pope Center and Civitas Institute have been vigilant watchdogs of  University of North Carolina law professor Gene Nichol. Nichol, a columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer, wrote last October that Governor McCrory “may be a smiling backslapper” but that his efforts in election reform made him “a 21st century successor” to notorious Southern segregationists Lester Maddox, George Wallace, and Orval Faubus.

The Pope-funded Civitas Institute decided to strike back. Three days after Nichol’s piece, Civitas Institute president Francis X. DeLuca and Pope Center president Jane Shaw penned a piece where they noted that Nichol came to the University of North Carolina from William and Mary, where he was president from 2005-8. DeLuca and Shaw noted that Nichol’s contract wasn’t renewed because he insisted that crosses be removed from the school’s Wren Chapel (where they might give secular students conniptions) and because the school held the “Sex Workers’ Art Fair,” presumably more energetic than a Sunday ice cream social. The Raleigh News and Observer subsequently reported the William and Mary board “had offered him (Nichol) substantial money to deny that his ouster was related to ideology.”

The Civitas Institute then filed a request for emails about a conference that the UNC Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity held last November. Nichol heads this center, which is nominally private but doesn’t file Form 990s because it claims it doesn’t have to because it is part of the state-funded university. One of the four panels of the conference was on “Challenges and Responsibilities of the North Carolina Philanthropic Community,” and when Dan Gerlach of the Golden LEAF Foundation said, “I would be cautious about attending given my Board makeup if this turns into a political fight against the current regime,” Nichol said that there would be no “political fight.” However, when Duke University professor Tim Tyson promised he would show up and “run McCrony (sic)-Pope over with the Steamroller of Love,” Nichol said, “thanks my brother. I do want you to yell a little bit. Or maybe a lot.”

Also present at this conference was Hodding Carter III, a notorious Carter Administration equivocator still gassing away at age seventy-nine as a University of North Carolina public policy professor.

The participants in this multi-day liberal pity party all kept their vows of silence. University of North Carolina Law School dean Jack Boger declared the meeting a “gathering” not subject to open-records laws. But the university cracked down on Nichol, ordering him to write in his column that his views do not represent the university and asking him to submit columns a day in advance. In short, Nichol is subject to the restrictions every federal bureaucrat who writes opinion pieces faces.

I discuss the Nichol case because it deserves to be better known and touches on many of the themes we deal with in this blog. But while I thought Gold’s piece was fair, it should have noted that the Pope Center is a national think tank rather than a regional one and that most of the time it does not deal with North Carolina issues. I also wish Gold would have at least mentioned John Locke Foundation president John Hood, whose energetic efforts helped make the foundation a success. (Hood is also an author of several thoughtful books about public policy.)

Matea Gold’s piece shows that Art Pope is a smart and effective donor—and a good role model for others to follow.