TOPICS > Politics

Challenging Helms

October 18, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, hello. How are you doing?

KAWME HOLMAN: Democrat Harvey Gantt is trying again to make history in North Carolina. Six years ago, he came within 100,000 votes of becoming the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. This time, Gantt says he’ll succeed in a state that’s only 22 percent black.

HARVEY GANTT, Democratic Senate Candidate: We can make the case in 1996 four years, a millennium, that folks will vote Harvey Gantt into office not because of how we voted traditionally but because we need somebody different in Washington who can reflect our values.

HARVEY GANTT: (talking to group) I also want to reinforce the notion that it’s important for us to renew some old values. You care about strong families. Harvey Gantt cares about strong families. I was raised in a strong family.

KAWME HOLMAN: The 53-year-old architect and former mayor of Charlotte says he’s learned lessons from 1990 when he allowed himself to be defined as too liberal for conservative North Carolina.

HARVEY GANTT: I know that you have to listen. I know that you have to be very clear about what you stand for. I know that we have to make the case that we reflect the values of that citizenry. I know that we have to go beyond simply allowing Jesse Helms to caricature us as a liberal or some far left wing nut.

SEN. JESSE HELMS, (R) North Carolina: I listen to candidates running around in the state and the nation and one in North Carolina, in particular. I don’t think he’s running for the Senate. I think he’s running for tooth fairy because all he wants to do is give away something that belongs to somebody else.

KAWME HOLMAN: The man who helped define Gantt in 1990 is using the same tactics in their rematch. Republican Jesse Helms, the conservative firebrand and four-term Senator, made a rare campaign appearance Monday in Goldsboro to celebrate his 75th birthday.

SEN. JESSE HELMS: We have a Republican. If we have the guts and the fortitude and the, the inclination to work for it, to preserve what is left in this country, and then go to work to repair the moral and spiritual decline.

KAWME HOLMAN: These are the so-called &true believers,” supporters of a Senator who has been a willfully controversial figure throughout his 24-year Senate career.

RICHARD OVERTON: Everybody knows what he is. You usually like him, or you don’t like him, and I like him. It’s just that simple.

JUNE OVERTON: I like his philosophy of what he has stood for in the past. I think his stand that he took on pornography was something that I thought was needed, and I greatly appreciate it.

KAWME HOLMAN: In accordance with a nearly unique political style, Helms has seen little need to debate his opponents grant interview requests, including ours, or run a standard campaign.

ROB CHRISTENSEN, Raleigh News & Observer: Well, it’s like covering a stealth campaign. His whole campaign is pretty much below the radar.

KAWME HOLMAN: Raleigh News & Observer political writer and columnist Rob Christensen has covered Jesse Helms for two decades with varying degrees of access.

ROB CHRISTENSEN: He doesn’t trust the news media. Uh, he prefers to get his message out on paid advertising and TV ads and in radio ads, and, uh, and he–so he pretty much cuts off the press.

AD SPOKESMAN: You needed that job. You were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.

KAWME HOLMAN: In 1990, Helms used this potent TV ad when the race with Harvey Gantt tightened up. This year, a Helms ad attacks Gantt’s support of gay rights.

AD SPOKESMAN: Harvey Gantt is trying to convince voters he’s against same-sex marriages, but that’s not what Harvey Gantt told “Cue Notes,” a Charlotte-based gay newspaper. Gantt said, “I can offer no objections to same-sex marriage.”

KAWME HOLMAN: State Republican political Director Robert Wilkie says both Helms ads made fair use of Gantt’s positions.

ROBERT WILKIE, North Carolina GOP Party: Gantt has openly courted the money from the homosexual community. He has attended their fund-raisers. He’s fated by them from San Francisco to New York. And suddenly, as part of this Morris-Clinton move to the social center, he is now mouthing the things that he believes that the voting public in North Carolina wants to hear.

THAD BEYLE, Political Science Professor: I think it’s unfortunate that the tone of his campaign seeks to attack one particular group in our society, and of course he wishes to tar his opponent with having some allegiance to that one group in our society as a means of saying it’s all right to stomp on these people in order to get the majority of people

KAWME HOLMAN: University of North Carolina political scientist Thad Beyle says this election, like all Jesse Helms races, is close.

THAD BEYLE: The old saw is that 45 percent of the North Carolinians are–love Helms and will vote for him and 45 percent will vote against him, don’t like him, and, therefore, the fight is over that other 10 percent.

KAWME HOLMAN: If North Carolina is of two minds about its senior senator, it’s also essentially two states. One is urban and progressive, characterized by the central tri-cities area that’s anchored by the burgeoning Charlotte, with its gleaming office towers and brand new NFL stadium. It’s complimented by the steady growth of the nearby Research Triangle Park and its high-tech jobs. The other North Carolina is rural and conservative, dependent on a shrinking manufacturing sector and agriculture, including tobacco. Jesse Helms has built and maintained his slim electoral majorities with a marriage of support from rural counties and the many staunch Republicans in the affluent suburbs. A conservative’s conservative Helms’ Senate career has been marked by votes against civil rights bills and funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Political columnist Rob Christensen.

ROB CHRISTENSEN: I think there is a strong sort of streak in the state. Sen. Helms does, in fact, represent the views of many North Carolinians. Some like his smaller–view of smaller government, his views against abortion, his anti-communism, his pro defense–there’s a lot of military bases in North Carolina. I think certainly Sen. Helms is favored to win reelection.

KAWME HOLMAN: For challenger Harvey Gantt, one new target of political opportunities stands out. Some 700,000 new residents have migrated to North Carolina since the last Senate race, many from the Midwest and Northeast. Though most were registered as Republicans in their home states, the Gantt campaign is betting they’re also the kind of moderates who will choose Gantt over the very conservative Jesse Helms. Anne Marie Howard, a real estate lobbyist who once was a Republican staff member on Capitol Hill, is at least receptive to Harvey Gantt.

ANNE MARIE HOWARD: Part of me says probably a younger person with more ideas about the future, rather than the past, might be better for a growing state like North Carolina. Whether that person’s Harvey Gantt I just don’t know.

KAWME HOLMAN: Todd Tennyson has reservations about Sen. Helms.

TODD TENNYSON: Overall, I’ve found him to be somewhat confrontational, um, as a registered Republican, Ulm, that is a little difficult for me to say, Ulm, but I do think that perhaps his most productive time as a politician has probably past.

KAWME HOLMAN: But political director Wilkie says most of the Republican immigrants to North Carolina will put aside any reservations about Sen. Helms’ social conservatism and vote their economic interests.

ROBERT WILKIE: That’s something that we believe appeals to those Republicans who’ve come in from the Midwest and the Northeast, that in their own economic interest, their self-interest, that Helms is the one that they will support because they cannot afford to support someone like Harvey Gantt and still hope to have a good future for their children, have money left in their pockets to do what they see fit with.

KAWME HOLMAN: With nine out of ten blacks expected to vote for him, Gantt needs massive support from white North Carolinians, old and new. Analysts say Gantt now behind by perhaps 10 points in opinion polls has an uphill fight to get that white voter support.

THAD BEYLE: He’s got to get probably around 40 percent of the white vote, and the last poll showed that he was about 28 percent of the white vote.

KAWME HOLMAN: But a poll released today also shows 10 percent of North Carolina voters still are undecided on the Senate race. Beyle says if those voters appear to be moving toward Gantt in the final days of the campaign, expect Jesse Helms to launch a new round of pointed attack aims at drawing them away.