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The 18-month legacy of the state's deputy budget director 

Shortly before resigning as state deputy budget director, Art Pope disclosed that his family-owned company, Variety Wholesalers, plans to open a grocery store in what used to be a Kroger on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Southeast Raleigh. Pope, the Republican financier and the man most responsible for turning state government into a right-wing demolition derby, told The News & Observer that the store, half-Roses, half-grocery, will be a new model for his discount chain. "It is a way to serve our community," Pope said.

Coincidentally, Pope's plans were front-page news three days before the launch of the Fertile Ground Food Cooperative in Southeast Raleigh on what sponsors called "Economic Independence Day."

Southeast Raleigh, historically African-American and lower-income, unquestionably needs another grocery—it's a food desert.

Fertile Ground is a perfect solution if it gets off the ground, but that's a big if. Pope's store is an easy answer, but possibly the worst one, given Pope's track record in politics and business. Pope's trickle-down methods fully justify the bitter response from one Fertile Ground organizer. "We should not participate in our oppression," Erin Byrd wrote. "No way, no how, any Negro who understands who Art Pope is should support his efforts to profit off the back of our folks in Southeast Raleigh."

Let me disclose that, after writing about Fertile Ground in July, I paid $100 and, though I live in West Raleigh, I am now a member of the little cooperative that could. Everything about it appeals to me, from its purposes to the people hoping to create a community- and worker-owned grocery quite unlike anything Art Pope has ever done.

And yet, I try to be pragmatic, a word Pope uses about himself. Fertile Ground has community connections but is far short of the capital needed to open a grocery store.

Pope has capital—Variety Wholesalers bought the Kroger for $2.57 million. Pope wants to serve "our" community. Why not put him to the test?

When the co-op members meet next, I'm going to propose that we reach out to Pope to see whether we might work together to achieve something remarkable: A business that both "creates pathways to living-wage jobs, increases access to healthy and affordable food and fosters collective ownership"—Fertile Ground's goals—and also makes money for him.

I know, it's less than a long shot, because Variety Wholesaler's other stores reek of community exploitation, not service, offering the cheapest possible goods. But given how badly Pope has been doing lately, he should be looking for a new direction.

Ordinarily, no one would ascribe the failures of a governor to his budget director. But Pat McCrory, so clueless about state government, is no ordinary governor. And Pope, whose fleet of conservative advocacy groups was supposed to arm McCrory with ideas, is no ordinary budget wonk. Pope put the campaign money behind many a Republican legislator, and he personally "advised" on the gerrymandering of legislative districts that brought McCrory to Raleigh with Republican super-majorities in the General Assembly.

From the get-go, though, this Republican gang made a mess, starting with the budget. McCrory promised—presumably at Pope's instigation—that any "tax reform" he signed would be revenue-neutral. It wasn't. Tax cuts skewed in favor of the rich and corporations blew a hole in future state revenues estimated at between $700 million and $1 billion a year.

McCrory announced that Medicaid was "broken" and he would fix things by putting for-profit management firms in charge. But that idea has failed in every state where it's been tried; belatedly, McCrory or Pope wised up to the fact that the provider-run system of Medicaid management already in place in North Carolina was a national model.

Unfortunately, too many Republican legislators believed the hokum about Medicaid fed them for so long by Pope's groups. Now, they're holding out for really wrecking Medicaid because it's "welfare"—to the point that Pope himself had to warn a legislative committee not to cut the aged, blind, poor and persons with disabilities from the rolls.

Maybe that's why a misty-eyed McCrory called Pope his mentor and "a voice for moderation and conservative common sense."

Moderation? Maybe in comparison to some tea-party crazies elected in districts so armor-plated by gerrymandering that no Democrat or even moderate Republican can ever win them. Their perpetual election results are on Pope.

Also on Pope is the McCrory record of slashing government programs for the poor and people in need, which include the deepest cuts to unemployment benefits in the country for people who've lost their jobs. Also, McCrory—and Pope—eliminated the earned-income tax credit that functioned as a modest, but helpful, supplement to the pay of low-wage workers.

This year, after promising they wouldn't, they cut funding for teacher assistants. What do these TA's do? They help kids in the early grades who are struggling to read—often, low-income kids whose parents don't read.

They cut $9 million from after-school programs for "at-risk" kids. They cut university funding, and their appointees want financial aid to UNC students capped as tuitions rise.

Worst of all, these trickle-down measures haven't resulted in a "Carolina Comeback" of the jobs lost during the recession, as much as McCrory and Pope want us to think otherwise. Even Pope, the numbers nerd, must see that.

In Raleigh—downtown and in Southeast—a host of foodie groups could work with Pope to supply healthy produce, sell it at his store, send him customers and even work for him if he'll learn to share and embrace a sustainable, community-minded approach to business.

Unlike what he's done in politics.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Art Pope: We want our money back"

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