Jesse Helms, the Face of Hard-Core Conservatism, Will Call it Quits

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ALAN MARLER/AP

Sen. Jesse Helms

Jesse Helms, the five-term Senator from North Carolina and the face of pre-Reagan, pre-Gingrich American conservatism, is expected to announce tonight that he will not run again for office. That decision will set off a political battle royal in North Carolina as Democrats and Republicans scramble to take over his seat in 2003, along with reminiscences over the Senator’s high-profile career.

The announcement, which will be broadcast from a Raleigh television station Wednesday evening, signals the effective end of the political life of the Senator which began when balanced budgets were considered a radical idea. The irascible 79-year-old Helms has held his seat since 1972. GOP strategists insist Helms’ impending departure will not hurt their chances to regain the Senate in 2002, but Democrats’ undisguised glee over the announcement tells another story.

Would he stay or would he go?

While the rumor mill churned along (would he stay or would he go?) media outlets had a field day with "unconfirmed reports." But for anyone eager to read the political tealeaves, there’s been no shortage of (very reliable) hints: Recent financial disclosures, for example, reveal a barren war chest — not exactly business as usual for a man who raised nearly $1 million in the comparable period before his last election, and who spent a robust $8 million on his bitterly contested 1996 campaign. Helms’ wife Dorothy is on the record as "adamantly" opposing another run. He even has a high-profile lady-in-waiting: Elizabeth Dole, a native of Salisbury, North Carolina, has publicly expressed interest in the seat. (As, of course, have many others, including former Senator and fellow conservative Republican Lauch Faircloth, and State Rep. Dan Blue, a Democrat.)

And despite hearty assurances of continued support from GOP leaders, there was murmured speculation that Helms wants to avoid the fate of 98-year-old Strom Thurmond, who has effectively relinquished his duties to an army of aides. Helms fights hard to maintain a vigorous image: Battles with prostate cancer and peripheral neuropathy have compromised his health in recent years, but his often biting wit and political prowess are still very much on display.

That’s been a boon for conservative Republicans, who applaud his "straight-talking ways" and have come to count on Helms to carry the ideological banner into battle. Among moderates and liberals of both parties, however, Helms’ right-wing, "family values" mantra has alienated many.

They man they called Senator "No"

Never one to shy away from conflict, Helms has been more than happy to fight on issues he’s committed to. He has outraged critics by using his position to rail against "indecent" art, gays and lesbians and civil rights in general. He has enraged the Senate’s growing pro-globalization caucus by maintaining an unapologetically isolationist attitude. Most recently he galled abortion rights supporters by blocking payment of U.S. dues to the UN as a protest against funds sent to women’s health providers that, Helms argued, were ostensibly used for abortion education or the procedure itself.

Indomitable on the Senate floor, Helms has also shown an appetite for political risk-taking on the campaign trail. He raised eyebrows during his 1990 race against Democrat Harvey Gantt when he ran an ad showing a pair of white hands crumbling a job application. The famous tag line: "You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?" Helms defeated Gantt, who is black, despite considerable opposition from voters in the state’s liberal Research Triangle area.

Helms, who began his career as a newspaperman and television commentator, was a Democrat until 1970. He switched parties to run for a Senate seat in 1972, taking office at the start of Richard Nixon’s fateful second term.

Now, as he reaches for the door, Republicans are already eulogizing a man who lent a passionate voice to his causes. Across the aisle, congressional Democrats are plotting to replace a man who took great delight in complicating their years in power — and who, when it came his turn, exercised his own.