WASHINGTON -- Art Pope, the wealthy owner of a chain of dollar stores, became a pioneer in the use of big money to seize power at the state level in 2010, when he underwrote a tea party takeover of the state legislature. It was the first time Republicans controlled both chambers in more than 100 years, and it was fueled largely by the Koch-allied Pope Foundation.
While North Carolina is a swing state in presidential elections, the dominance of Pope and the tea party has shifted the state's politics in a dramatically conservative direction, sparking the Moral Mondays protests.
The tea party has pushed forward with its agenda regardless. And because North Carolina was the first state to be so thoroughly dominated by big money from a single donor with a deeply ideological agenda, what's happening there now could serve as a window into the future fate of other states. With the rise of the Koch brothers as a political force, it also offers a glimpse into what could happen on a national scale.
If North Carolina is any indication, the nation's system of publicly funded higher education, as of now the envy of the world, will be threatened.
The state's Republican-led legislature has launched an ideological drive against the state's publicly funded academic institution, the University of North Carolina system. In 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) instructed the university's Board of Governors to identify some $15 million in budget cuts to university research centers -- a move in line with Pope's desire to slash the higher education budget. Pope was named the state's deputy budget director soon after the tea party seized control in the state.
A seven-member working group identified 240 such centers, before whittling that number down to 34 for further evaluation. Of that number, eight are based at UNC-Chapel Hill. The targeted programs include the Carolina Center for Public Service; the Carolina Women’s Center; the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence; the Center for Law and Government; the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy; the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History; the UNC Center for Civil Rights, the UNC Institute on Aging and the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Later this month, a review of the UNC system and its 16 campuses will determine the fate of those academic centers.
"In selecting these eight centers from the hundreds on campus, it is hard not to worry that there is a potent ideological agenda at work here," Gene Nichol, a law professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, told the board in September.
The Poverty Center was founded in 2005 by former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who later ran for president on his 'Two Americas' anti-poverty platform. North Carolina has seen record levels of poverty since the Great Recession, and the center studies poverty and work, advocates for policies that mitigate poverty and holds panels on the issue. It is privately funded and runs on an annual budget of about $120,000, none of which comes from the state. It uses some university resources, which enables the university's board to shut it down. It also receives some state grants, which it would need to return if it closed.
Nichol took charge of the center in 2008, after being forced to resign as president from the College of William & Mary. Nichol said he was undone by an organized group that took issue with his removal of a cross from the campus chapel and a decision not to ban a sex-workers art show in the name of free speech.
Just a few years later, Nichol would once again come to draw the ire of conservatives. Prompted by the Republican sweep of the state's offices in 2010 and their subsequent decision to cut unemployment benefits and reject the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, Nichol went on offense. In editorials for the Raleigh News & Observer, he slammed the GOP for waging an “unforgivable war on poor people." In another, he criticized Gov. McCrory for signing a voter ID bill, referring to him as “hapless Pat” and comparing him to segregationist George Wallace.
Republicans took notice. Two conservative think tanks published a response to the column, arguing that the political activity was inappropriate for a public college professor that earned a salary paid by North Carolina taxpayers. "Pat called from Mississippi this morning,” Ed McMahan, a Republican working group member, wrote to the board’s chairman, an apparent reference to Gov. McCrory.
Nichol says state legislators told him that if he didn't stop the attacks, it would mean the end of the Poverty Center. He eventually agreed to the following disclaimer under his columns: “He doesn’t speak for UNC.”
The Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, took aim at Nichol by filing a public records request in search of his correspondence at the university. In a post on its website, the group accused the professor of "gross impropriety of using taxpayer-funded resources for political purposes," and alleged that he violated state law. Civitas and the Pope Foundation have long called for culling state research centers as a way to save funds.
Reached for comment on Sunday, Nichols was resigned as to the fate of the center. He further called into question the objectivity of the inquiry, and denounced the "minions on the Board of Governors" who "have their marching orders."
"I'm hopeful they'll spare the center, but I doubt they will," he told The Huffington Post. "For me, this is all part, maybe the last chapter, of the threats I've received from the Republican leadership for two years -- either stop publishing pieces for the Raleigh News & Observer or we'll close the Poverty Center. I've refused to stop writing. They don't believe I ought to be allowed to publish pieces that are critical of the present government. And they don't care much for niceties like academic freedom or free speech."
Jim Holmes, the board member leading the review, has denied any allegations of partisanship.
“We’ll be able to ask some questions,” he told the News & Observer. “And from there we’ll be able to draw some conclusions. I can tell you that this group has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to be fair and objective in an area where we all know there’s a heightened sense of concern.”
Since 2010, when the GOP took control of both the state House and Senate, the General Assembly has appointed all 32 members of the Board of Governors. Twenty-nine of them are registered Republicans, according to Creative Loafing Charlotte.
The board will have the final say on the centers on Feb. 27, when it votes on the working group's recommendations.
Adding to concerns over the future of the university is the abrupt dismissal of Tom Ross, who was forced to resign as UNC system president last month and who once defended Nichol from "over-reacting" critics. Board of Governors Chair John Fennebresque has denied the notion that politics contributed to the ousting of Ross, a registered Democrat. But he has not offered a reason for the departure -- fueling criticism that the decision was another attempt by the Republican-led legislature to exert undue influence.
Calling itself United for UNC, a group of students, faculty, staff and alumni has started a petition to reinstate Ross. The petition calls his removal a "politically motivated attack by a radical Board that values partisanship over responsible university governance."
Fennebresque's daughter disputed that charge in a comment published on the petition's website. "His decisions are not political at all. To say so is lazy and trouble causing. Dad wants what is best for the system....bottom line and full stop," Amy Fennebresque Burleson wrote. "He likes Tom Ross. They are friends. The system needs a fresh start. No right wing conspiracy. Just a change."
Holmes and Fennebresque did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
As for Nichol, he is not completely pessimistic about his future at UNC.
"I remain a tenured law professor," he said. "When the Poverty Center is abolished, I'll have more time to write, to speak and to protest North Carolina's burgeoning war on poor people. I plan to use it."