Fear and loathing on the Tar Heel campaign trail

J. Peder Zane Author, Design in Nature
Font Size:

Like fundamentalist Christians, hard-core liberals know they are right and cannot imagine why anyone would disagree with them.

Scratch that. They know exactly why people disagree with them: because they are racist, greedy and/or stupid.

The nexus between stupidity and greed is a favorite theme, especially at The New Yorker, which has published a string of stories arguing that wealthy conservatives such as Charles and David Koch are using their loot to dupe ignorant white people into supporting their plutocratic dreams. (In fairness, Glenn Beck has worked mightily to cast George Soros as a liberal puppet-master.)

Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer who targeted the Koch brothers last year (and Clarence Thomas two decades ago) has come up with another bogeyman, North Carolina millionaire Art Pope.

In “State for Sale,” Mayer argues that Pope is using his wealth to fund crude, often racist ads that are pushing North Carolina to the far-right. His success, she writes, is evidenced by the GOP’s sweep of the 2010 elections, when it gained control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

The article’s flavor is captured by an accompanying caricature of Pope with the state in his back pocket and a quote from Chris Heagarty, a Democrat defeated in 2010: “For an individual to have so much power is frightening. The government of North Carolina is for sale.”

It is, of course, being taken as gospel in liberal circles, already receiving glowing coverage in The Huffington Post and on “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

There’s only one problem, writes Rob Christensen, a former colleague of mine who is a political columnist for the News & Observer of Raleigh: this grim story is a fairy tale. His latest column, “N.C. Isn’t In Pope’s Pocket,” Christensen offers a sharp critique of Mayer’s tendentious article. Arguing that the piece “lacked context,” Christensen writes that, “Pope’s role is repeatedly blown up like one of those helium-filled balloons in the Macy’s Day parade in New York.”

Christensen, who has covered North Carolina politics for four decades and written a definitive history, “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics,” argues: “If Pope did not exist, the Republicans would still have likely won control of the legislature last November.”

Unlike Mayer, he puts the GOP’s 2010 victory in the context of “a national GOP landslide — a reaction to the bad economy, a backlash against the new health care law, and in North Carolina a response to multiple Democratic scandals.”

He adds: “Pope’s groups pumped $2.2 million into 27 races in 2010 — but that is in the context of $30 million spent on the legislative campaign.”

Of course, Pope has influence beyond his single vote. But Christensen concludes, “The Pope money may have helped Republicans at the edges, but it is not clear that Pope’s money turned a single election, let alone control of the legislature.”

I worked with Christensen for 13 years at the N&O and I can tell you he is not a partisan. He is a charter member of that great endangered species in journalism: the fair-minded straight-shooter. I hope his column takes some of the helium out of Mayer’s balloon. I also hope he will write a follow-up suggested by a line that appears early in his column. Introducing his subject, he describes Mayer as “one of the best political journalists in the country.”

His column suggests that the meaning of political journalist is not what it used to be.

J. Peder Zane is co-author with Adrian Bejan of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization,” which Doubleday will publish in January.