Art Pope, the Raleigh businessman whose millions helped pay for the thoroughly negative anti-everything campaign waged by the Republican Party in North Carolina this year, says it’s “almost extortion” how the Democratic Party wants its supporters to boycott his stores.

On a WPTF radio talk show Friday, Pope explained his free-market, anti-government philosophy, which does allow for charity to the needy, he said. But the poor shouldn’t count on their neighbors to provide for them, Pope argued. In fact, he said, he takes the old saying one step further: You can give a man a fish, but it’s better if you teach him how to fish, and better still if the man can buy a boat, catch a lot of fish and provide for his family.

Pope, of course, did not have to look to the government for his job. He looked to his daddy, the late John William Pope, who in 1949 was put in charge of five family-owned dime stores in eastern North Carolina. John William Pope turned that modest grubstake into a retailing empire spanning 14 southeastern states. He hired Art as a vice president. Now Art’s the CEO!

Today, according to the Variety Wholesalers Inc. website, the Pope family’s company owns more than 400 stores. The biggest, at 30,000 square feet and up, are its 112 Roses stores. The 148 Maxway stores are medium-sized. Another 159 stores, generally smaller than 10,000 square feet, operate under numerous brands, including Super Dollar, Super 10 and Pope’s. Collectively, they make up “one of the largest privately owned retail companies in the U.S.”

The company makes no secret that its target demographic is low-income communities with large minority populations. According to the website, ideal locations are in old shopping centers:

“We look primarily for locations in second and third generation shopping centers. In addition, we will consider free-standing sites, and store front locations in large urban cities. Site criteria include:

  • Grocery anchored shopping center preferred.
  • Minimum population of 2,500 within 1 mile of the site
  • Minimum 25 percent African-American population within 5 miles
  • Median household income of $40,000 or less”

We visited three of Pope’s storesa Roses in Durham, a Maxway in Hillsborough and a Super Dollar in Creedmoor (Granville County)to check out the merchandise.

Not surprisingly, given Pope’s belief in free trade, most of the merchandise was made in China, Taiwan, Pakistan and other countries not home to North Carolina. We didn’t look at every product, so there may have been something for sale that was manufactured in North Carolinabut if so, we didn’t find it.

What we did find was a remarkable assortment of cheap household goods, everything from a box of birthday cards (10 for $1, and made in Chicago) to a line of George Martin brand men’s clothes that included boxed shirt-and-tie sets for $10 and suits for $25. (George is Chinese, apparently; anyway, the clothes were Chinese-made.)

Inexpensive clothes, shoes, sheets, pillows and other “soft goods” jammed the aisles along with toys and other hard goods targeted to low-income customers, including indoor HDTV antennas ($12.50) for homes without cable or satellite service and cell phone airtime cards for folks without a monthly plan.

Using the profits he makes from selling to the less fortunate, Art Pope pours millions into conservative and right-wing organizations that advance his anti-government, I-made-it-why-can’t-you? agenda.

These groups include the John Locke Foundation, the John William Pope Civitas Institute and Civitas Action, all of which are based in Raleigh and receive millions from Art Pope annually. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, Pope and the family foundation he controls, the John William Pope Foundation, have contributed some $28.7 million to these groups over the years.

Pope is also a major supporter of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a national right-wing organization funded by the billionaire Koch brothers (Koch Industries is the nation’s biggest privately owned oil company) that spurred the tea party movement, among other things. Art Pope is vice chairman of the national organization; because of him, North Carolina is home to one of the most active AFP state chapters, also based in Raleigh.

In addition, Pope’s company was a major backer of Real Jobs NC, a nonprofit advocacy organization created this year as a campaign vehicle for sliming incumbent Democratic legislators. Variety Stores, a Pope subsidiary, gave $100,000, and it also helped fund the Republican State Legislative Leadership Committee (R.S.L.C.), which gave Real Jobs NC another $850,000. Real Jobs NC reported spending almost $1.4 million on campaign mailers and ads through mid-October, according to its filing Oct. 28 with the N.C. State Board of Elections.

As we toured his stores, we saw a variety, if you will, of products that revealed a lot about the Pope agenda.

Mr. Bump Medical Kit

If Pope has his way, a new Republican Congress will repeal the health care reform act passed by the Democrats and signed by President Obama. Low-income families will thus be encouraged to diagnose and treat their own medical conditions: The Mr. Bump kit ($10, made in China) is ideal for the purpose.

Lucha Libre!

This toy Mexican wrestler will daze Art Pope with a kick to the gut using the classic hurricanrana move, which is great for smaller wrestlers who cannot easily take down their opponents.

Pope’s Civitas Institute expounds on the “myths” of illegal immigration, including “that most illegal immigrants are good, hard-working people who only want to support their families.”

No, those invisible folks making our lives more comfortablecleaning our hotel room, cooking our lunch, did we mention paying taxes?Civitas says, “are criminals,” because they’ve broken U.S. law. (No room for nuance in the Civitas world.) And Hispanic women are a particular menace to society, Civitas goes on, because they have the highest unwed birthrate in the United States.

Maybe they’re emulating Bristol Palin? No, no, it must be that highly effective abstinence education that Civitas and company supports.

Mexican wrestler (documents not included), $2, made in China.

Get Money University

Pope’s big on the idea of giving parents vouchers for private schools (K–12); at the university level, he contributes money to schools that teach how America was built on free-enterprise values (Oh, OK, on slavery and low-wage factory work too) and would be better off if we all learned to make money the way he did. A good cap ($6, made in China but marketed as MeccaUSA) is step one to education reform.

Press’N Go Vehicle

Pope’s certainly not on board with mass transitthe John Locke Foundation went all-out to repeal the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit that paid for Charlotte’s light-rail line. So if you want to ride a train, you’ll need to buy your own. The Press ‘N Go ($5, made in China) won’t take you far, but it won’t cost the taxpayers anything either.

Barrel of Sludge

We’ve been driving around all day in a gas-guzzling truck, trying to find a place to dump this hazardous waste. Oh wait, here’s Art Pope’s backyard!

The Civitas Institute takes a dim view of environmental regulation: It hampers business, Pope and his followers say, so it must be bad.

Civitas supports drilling off North Carolina’s coast and, because the oil companies allegedly operate at a profit margin of only 9.5 percent, we should not tax oil profits. (Before you break out the oily hankie, remember that in 2008, Exxon reported the best quarterly profit ever for a corporation, $11.68 billion, beating its own record.)

Civitas is dubious about the causes of global warming, despite the accepted scientific consensus that human activity is the culprit.

The group opposed the “Teach Green Science bill,” ostensibly because “it is based on a particular philosophy or political viewpoint.” Who knew weather-stripping had a political agenda?

And Civitas opposed a ban on the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag, which harms the environment from its cradle at a noxious plastics factory to its grave in the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.

“North Carolina may have waged a war against plastic but it is really waging a war against consumer choice. North Carolina residents should fight back against such government intrusions and support real efforts to help the environment that do not limit our individual rights.”

Don’t mind the barrels, Mr. Pope. They’ll biodegrade in 2,000 or 3,000 years. Barrels of sludge, $2, made in China.

Play Money

Made by Imperial Toys in China, where so many of our actual dollars go. For just $1.50, you get a wad of cash to wave around after your job is outsourced to an Asian nation. Use it instead of the government checks Pope doesn’t want you to have, though it won’t buy the boat Pope says you need to catch the fish to feed your family. For that, $2 more to the Pope family trusts will buy you an Imperial Toys piggy bank, perfect for saving your fake coins and any real ones you come by.

Glamour Girls

Oddly, they come two to a package. But when these little girls grow up, no kissing each otherthey’ll need boy dolls to marry. Because if Pope’s groups have their way, the state constitution would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Marriage isn’t about a loving and caring relationship as much as it is about having children: “That does not mean that people who are barren cannot marry, but it does mean that procreation is a main function of marriage,” according to a Civitas editorial from last year. $5, made in China.

Additional reporting by Joe Schwartz.