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NC Budget Chief Debates With Top Critic

Photo: Rev. William Barber of the N.C. NAACP called for pickets outside Rose and Maxwell stores, which are owned by the family of state Budget Director Art Pope.
Jorge Valencia

The Rev. William Barber, who led weekly protests this year against laws passed by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature, gathered with a few of his supporters Monday outside the state budget office to criticize a man they say supports policies that hurt poor people.

In a speech, Barber pointed out that the family of state Budget Director Art Pope, who is also president of the retail company Variety Wholesalers Inc., has donated to the campaigns of lawmakers who supported the state’s new law requiring voters to show identification at voting polls or who have refused state expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Those policies, Barber said, hurt the mostly low-income shoppers who patronize the discount stores Pope’s family owns. 

“The money and influence he is wielding is not benign at all,” Barber said. “It is, in fact, quite intentional, quite focused and quite regressive.”

As Barber concluded his speech, Pope walked onto the doorsteps of the Administration Building, apparently unaware he was passing a conference of which he was the sole focus. Barber approached Pope saying he was calling for picketing outside Pope’s stores, including Roses and Maxway, and the exchange that followed was a rare chance encounter  between two of the most fiercely opposing voices in state politics. 

“Do you want to close down my stores so that we don’t provide services in the community and we would have to lay off our employees?” Pope asked Barber. 

Pope said his stores, whose target audience has a household income of $40,000 or less, help generate employment in underserved communities. He said the John William Pope Foundation, which has given millions to conservative think tanks, is one of the biggest charity givers in the region and cited donations to the Shepherd’s Table soup kitchen in Raleigh and to Habitat for Humanity. 

“We’re providing jobs,” Pope said. “We're allowing shoppers an option to shop in their community without having to take a bus to the big box store down the highway. And you want to put a stop to that?”

Barber replied: “We want to put a stop to the use of wealth to influence policies in a negative way… The policies that you are supporting are hurting the very people who spend there.”

Before Pope walked into the building, Barber handed Pope a letter urging Pope to back a special legislative session to reverse laws including the new voter ID law and invited him to a formal meeting. Pope did not decline or accept the offer.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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