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N.C. budget director briefly debates a top critic

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH Two symbols of North Carolina politics – the chief opponent of Republican-approved laws and the state budget director who’s helped promote conservatism for decades – met Monday in a rare back-and-forth over GOP policies and the director’s family business.

The Rev. William Barber of the state NAACP and budget director Art Pope debated briefly outside the government office building in Raleigh where Pope works and as Barber wrapped up a news conference singling out Pope for his activities.

Barber, who has led a series of weekly protests known as Moral Mondays against laws passed by the Republican-led General Assembly, handed Pope a letter urging him to renounce legislation approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory that requires photo identification to vote, refuses to expand Medicaid and reduces or eliminates unemployment benefits.

The civil rights group and allied organizations also announced a plan during the holidays to picket outside Roses, Maxway and other discount stores operated by Variety Wholesalers Inc., of which Pope is president and CEO.

“The extremist laws and policies that you support disproportionately impact your customers and the communities in which they live,” which are primarily working-class and minority communities, Barber wrote in the letter. He said Pope should back a special legislative session to reverse those laws. Pope didn’t flinch from a brief debate with Barber as TV cameras recorded the event.

“Do you want to close down my stores so that we don’t provide services in the community so that I’ve got to lay off my employees?” Pope asked Barber outside the Administration Building. Privately held Variety Wholesalers operates about 70 stores in North Carolina. Barber stopped short of calling for a store boycott, saying people should make up their own minds about where to shop.

“We’d love for you to use your wealth and pay your employees more,” Barber responded, but said later “the policies that you are supporting, sir, are hurting the very people who spend (money) there.”

Representatives of the NAACP and pro-labor groups planned to distribute leaflets outside the stores during the holidays, beginning Monday in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. The leaflets accuse Pope of using tens of millions of dollars in store profits and from other sources to support conservative causes, political committees and candidates that have led the right-leaning policy shift in the state.

Do shoppers “know what kind of political machine their money supports?” asked Chris Kromm with the Durham-based Institute for Southern Studies and a frequent critic and chronicler of Pope and Pope family money. “Would holiday shoppers still go to Pope’s stores if they knew that Pope-backed lawmakers and groups moved to cut off unemployment benefits, denying Medicaid expansion to hundreds of thousands of struggling North Carolinians?”

Pope said his critics have free-speech rights but accused the groups of wanting to demonize opponents, adding that he wouldn’t want to see conservative activists protesting Democratic donors and their businesses.

Pope, a former state legislator who is paid $1 annually as budget director, defended McCrory administration policies and his company’s operations, both of which he said were helping reduce unemployment rates. As long as he is budget chief, Pope isn’t involved in day-to-day operations at Variety Wholesalers, which operates more than 350 stores in 15 states and employs more than 7,000 workers.

The John William Pope Foundation, which gives millions annually to conservative-leaning think tanks, also donates to charitable organizations that alleviate the symptoms of poverty, Pope said. He cited giving to a soup kitchen and charities for housing and medical care for low-income residents.

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