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Fact Checking Art Pope And William Barber’s Impromptu Debate

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

An accidental debate between state budget director Art Pope and state NAACP President Rev. William Barber this month was a rare chance encounter between two of the best known conservative and liberal voices in state politics.

The setting was familiar: Rev. Barber has been publicly railing for months against laws passed by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature, and on Dec. 2 he called a news conference to criticize Pope in front of his offices in the state Administration Building.

Barber was announcing a series of pickets outside the discount stores Roses and Maxway, a chain Pope’s family owns. He said he wanted to show the companies’ profits have funded conservative groups that support the new laws Barber and hundreds of others decried this year in what became known as the Moral Monday protests.

As the news conference was wrapping up, Pope was walking into the building and, for the first time ever, the the two met face to face. Barber walked to Pope and gave him a letter, launching this two-and-a-half minute debate:

Before their exchange ended, Barber told Pope, "Let’s meet" multiple times, but Pope did not acknowledge the overture. A week later, Pope wrote Barber a letter concluding: “Let us respectfully disagree.” The NAACP has said it has since then held pickets outside of stores in Durham, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Winston-Salem.

The five issues Barber and Pope debated reflect the key disagreements between the state's Democrats and Republicans this year. Here's an explanation:

The Pope Family Business

In their impromptu debate, Barber said policies Pope has endorsed have disproportionately hurt people with low incomes and minorities who shop at the company his family owns, Variety Wholesalers, Inc. He also said the company pays low wages. Pope countered that the company generates employment and that about a third of the employees are African American, including people in management positions.

In his response to Barber, Pope wrote that more than 44 percent of employees and more than 37 percent of store managers were African American as of July 2013. Twenty-two percent of the state’s population was African American in 2012, according to the U.S. Census.

Pope did not elaborate on pay at the company. We made phone and e-mail requests to Variety Wholesalers on pay scales, but the company did not reply.

Unemployment benefits

Barber and Pope debated a law Gov. Pat McCrory signed in February cutting the unemployment benefits the state would pay jobless people from a maximum of $535 to $350 per week and the maximum number of weeks of payment from 26 to 20. When the law was signed, the U.S. Department of Labor said it would make North Carolina ineligible for federal unemployment benefits. When the law went into effect July 1, the labor department canceled the benefits for about 70,000 people in the state.

Pope: It was the federal government that declined to grandfather in North Carolina's unemployment reforms and terminated the benefits.

Pope and Barber’s disagreement centers on causation: Did the state’s new law cause the federal government to discontinue benefits, or did the federal government unilaterally decide to discontinue benefits to people without jobs in North Carolina?

Lawmakers who voted for House Bill 4 in February said it was designed to help the state accelerate its payment of the $2 billion it borrowed from the federal government for a surge in unemployment it paid during the recession. As the Associated Press reported, supporters said their intention was that the law would allow businesses to create more jobs by reducing the tax burden on them.

The law violated the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security, was paying about an average of $287 each week to about 80,000 jobless people in the state who were no longer receiving state unemployment benefits. It violated the law because it said any state that reduced its unemployment benefits after March 1, 2012, and before Jan. 1, 2014, would no longer be eligible for the program, the Raleigh News & Observer reported

In their exchange, Barber said jobless people in the state lost benefits because of the new law. That matches what the Acting Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris said in a statement February. He said The law would violate the department’s long-standing rules and that it be forced to cut off the federal program.

Pope’s response was that federal benefits were lost because the federal government refused to grandfather – or waive – the state’s unemployment law under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. That echoes what state Rep. Julia Howard (R-Mocksville), who sponsored the bill, told the News & Observer in February, saying legislators worked for months on the legislation before the prohibition on states changing weekly benefits became part of the fiscal cliff deal.

Unemployment rate

Barber told Pope that his policies have hurt people who shop at the stores his company owns, likely referring to laws passed this year cutting some unemployment benefits and blocking an expansion of the number of people eligible for Medicaid. Pope’s response was that the unemployment rate is lower under Gov. McCrory than it ever was under his Democratic predecessor Gov. Bev Perdue. He said the rate has dropped from more than 10 percent to 7.8%.

That’s partially true, but lacks context. The unemployment rate peaked during Gov. Perdue’s 2009 to 2013 tenure at 11.3% in February 2010. It has since slowly declined, including in the 11 months Gov. McCrory has been in office, and was at its five-year low in October, with an estimated 8%, according to the state Department of Commerce’s Division of Employment Security.

It should be noted the state’s unemployment rate has been higher than the national figures and has followed a similar post-recession downward trend. The national rate reached 9.9% in November and December 2009 and March and April 2010. It has steadily declined since and was at its lowest in October at 7%, the division of employment security said.

Medicaid expansion

Barber told Pope that he had denied Medicaid to “people who need it the most,” referring to a law Gov. McCrory signed in March rejecting major components of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, as it’s better known. Most prominently, the North Carolina law blocked a Medicaid expansion in the state.

Barber: You cut unemployment benefits to people who lost their jobs, no fault of their own. You deny Medicaid to the folk who need it the most, our own money.

Obamacare sought to expand government-paid healthcare coverage in 2014 to people living below 138 percent the federal poverty line, or roughly $31,000 for a family of four. It said the federal government would pay the entire cost of newly eligible patients for the first three years and pay at least 90 percent of the cost after that. Roughly 500,000 people in North Carolina would have signed up under that expansion, according to an estimate by the N.C. Institute of Medicine.

Opponents of the state law fought it by emphasizing that 1.5 million in the state didn’t have insurance, the News & Observer reported. Gov. McCrory and other supporters said they lacked confidence the federal government would keep its promise to pay the full cost during the first three years and that there were other options for low-income people, such as health centers, free clinics and state health departments.

Non-partisan redistricting

Rev. Barber told Pope that he has undermined the voting process by creating barriers to voting, likely referring to a law that passed this year with support from conservative legislators and requires voters to show valid identification at polling stations.

Pope’s response was that when he was a representative for Wake County in the legislature, he supported legislation for bipartisan redistricting. He was referring to House Bill 1099 in 1989 and House Bill 1179 in 1999. Both called for an independent redistricting commission, but there wasn’t enough support and both died before making it to the house floor for voting.

Read a full transcript of the debate.

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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