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N.C. Senator's Hard-Line Conservatism Helped Craft Republican Social Agenda

In five terms, Jesse Helms attracted a national following, supporting what he called
In five terms, Jesse Helms attracted a national following, supporting what he called "decency, honor and spiritual and moral cleanliness in America." (By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)
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Helms also had a reputation for going for the jugular in a political fight. "He ran negative ads against me for 20 months," said former North Carolina governor James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat who lost to Helms in North Carolina's 1984 Senate election, in a 1990 interview with The Post. "During that time he was able to tear me down and get people to begin to see the race in his terms, Jesse Helms's race."

That strategy included efforts to link Hunt with liberal causes by showing pictures of him with Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale. It also emphasized Helms's 16-day filibuster against a federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In his two final races, in 1990 and 1996, Helms defeated former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in bitterly contested campaigns that attracted national attention. Helms designed his campaigns against the African American Gantt to be about "North Carolina values" vs. "extreme liberal values," and Helms made it clear where he stood.

Helms campaigned against what he described as liberal efforts to give unfair preference in hiring and education to racial minorities. One of his TV ads showed the hand of a white man crumpling a rejection letter as an announcer intoned: "You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority."

The Justice Department admonished his 1996 campaign for civil rights violations after it mailed 125,000 fliers to heavily African American precincts warning that voters risked imprisonment if they cast ballots.

Gantt later said of Helms's effective but divisive tactics: "He does what every little guy who thinks like him would like to do: stand at the gap and keep out the people they think are trying to change things for the worse. Jesse Helms represents exactly that kind of defiance."

Jesse Alexander Helms Jr. was born Oct. 18, 1921, in Monroe, N.C., a small town where his father was police chief. He attended Wingate College and Wake Forest University but left before graduating to work as a sportswriter for the Raleigh News & Observer.

During World War II, he served in the Navy, then returned to journalism as city editor of the Raleigh Times newspaper. In 1948, he joined the staff of Raleigh radio station WRAL, where he became news and program director. He also helped start the North Carolina News Network, a statewide radio system.

Helms's political career began in 1950, when he served as a top campaign aide to Willis Smith, a conservative Raleigh lawyer running for the U.S. Senate. In one of the roughest campaigns in state history, Smith used a series of race-based attacks to defeat University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham in the Democratic primary.

Helms later said he played no major role in the campaign, but others insisted he was its chief architect. In any event, Helms accompanied Smith to Washington as his administrative assistant. Three years later, when Smith died, Helms went back to North Carolina as executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and served two terms on the Raleigh City Council.

In 1960, he returned to the news business as executive vice president of a regional broadcasting company that operated WRAL-TV.

Helms became a household name in North Carolina with his editorials on local news broadcasts. At 6:25 p.m. each night, he broadcast five-minute tirades against the likes of intellectuals, "the so-called civil rights movement," big government, high taxes, student protests and the Kennedys. The commentaries were rebroadcast the next morning and were carried on 70 radio stations, making Helms's observations staples of daily life in North Carolina. A newspaper column he wrote during those years ran in 200 papers.

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