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Jesse Helms

by David Gura
Jul 7, 2008

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David Gura

For years, I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a few miles from UNC, the University of North Carolina, which former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) once called, "the University of Negroes and Communists."

Helms, who died on Friday, didn't have many supporters in my hometown. Fans? Forget about it. When North Carolina politicians decided to build a state zoo, Helms questioned the expenditure. Couldn't we just build a fence around Chapel Hill?, he asked.

His loyal base lived in towns like Hobgood, Macclesfield, and Lucama, in eastern North Carolina. (Many of his supporters were farmers, of tobacco and hogs, especially.) Helms was, he said, one of them: a member of North Carolina's working class, raised to believe that homosexuality was deplorable, abortion was unconscionable, and communism had to be defeated. His critics argued that he was deplorable, bigoted and racist.

In 1990, Helms ran for reelection against Harvey Gantt, a Charlotte architect-turned-mayor. Down in the polls, Helms made this commercial:

It is an ad that no North Carolinian, Helms supporter or not, can forget.

John Fund, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, calls Helms "the uncompromisingly defiant exemplar of [modern conservatism]." Do you agree? If you live — or lived — in North Carolina, did you vote for Helms? What made him so electable?

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