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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: “Nonpartisan” Lee Roberts receives income from far-right megadonor’s company

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Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts claims his work at the helm of the University is nonpartisan.

Yet, for the last three years, he has received income from Variety Wholesalers, a business owned by conservative businessman Art Pope (a megadonor to Republican campaigns), while the two men served on the UNC Board of Governors together

Public financial records are required for service on the UNC Board of Governors. In 2021, Roberts reported just three forms of income over $5,000: his company, his visiting teaching position and undefined income from Variety Wholesalers. The following years, he submitted no-change forms. 

Pope built Variety Wholesalers into a billion-dollar retail conglomerate by targeting its store locations in Black and low-income neighborhoods. With the profits from his lucrative business model, Pope advanced a far-right agenda that disenfranchises those same vulnerable communities, garnering resistance from prominent civil rights leaders such as Rev. William Barber.

Here’s how he did it.

Over the past two decades, Pope used his family fortune and business to construct a vast network of political power and influence over the state government and higher education in North Carolina.

According to analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, Pope, members of his family and outside organizations with connections to him spent more than $2 million in 2010 N.C. elections, targeting more than 20 legislative races, of which Republicans won a majority — placing both General Assembly chambers under Republican rule for the first time since 1870.

Republicans then gerrymandered the state electoral map to secure their power for decades to come. Pope not only financially supported this effort, he was also allowed in the room where district maps were being made to provide "direct instructions to the technician," according to ProPublica.

Pope simultaneously exerts influence through his network of nonprofits, think-tanks and media outlets. Organizations funded by his family foundation like the John Locke Foundation and James G. Martin Center use their millions to push agendas aiming to defund public higher education and promote conservative ideology in university curricula. 

Outside of higher education, the Locke Foundation’s infamous policy agenda advocated climate denialism and recommended that policymakers “abandon all state attempts to fight global warming.” In 2017 they signed a letter asking then-president Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. 

Roberts has long supported the Locke Foundation’s advocacy work. In the 2017 Locke Foundation’s annual report, he said, “I know firsthand that the work done by the Locke Foundation is vital to the budget development process. Moreover, the Locke Foundation is the only organization in North Carolina providing that kind of analysis.”

Our interim leader promised the UNC community that he would be nonpartisan as chancellor. Yet for the last three years, he has received money from Variety Wholesalers, the company of the most powerful conservative donor in our state. Of the $1.3 million already donated to political causes in the 2024 election cycle by individuals linked to Variety Wholesalers, 100 percent has gone to conservative causes and candidates. 

Nonpartisan? We call bullshit.

— Alexander Denza, Toby Posel, Samuel Scarborough, Luke Diasio and Andrew Sun

CLARIFICATION: This op-ed has been updated with information regarding campaign spending based on research by the Institute of Southern Studies. 

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