North Carolina Republicans Are Overdue for a Reckoning on Jesse Helms

The late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, in a 2005 file photo. (Photo by Andrew Councill/MCT/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

By Billy Ball

September 15, 2022

GOP candidates Ted Budd and Richard Dietz were booked to headline a dinner with Helms’ name last weekend. But what does Helms’ bigoted views say about them?

“If you want to call me a bigot, fine,” the late Sen. Jesse Helms told the Washington Times in 1993. 

Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, was using his considerable influence within the party to block the nomination of an openly gay woman to a federal housing agency. The nominee, Helms said, was a “damn lesbian.”

It’s been nearly 30 years but we’ll accept Helms’ invitation: He was a bigot. 

And neither his late-career mellowing nor his 2008 death can put a shine on the half-century he spent in politics. Few politicians in late 20th century America were as adept at putting a suit and tie on hate. Black people, women, LGBTQ people, Mexicans, even people that were dying of AIDS: None of them were spared Helms’ wrath. 

So it should be a surprise, then, that Republicans like U.S. Senate hopeful Ted Budd and N.C. Supreme Court candidate Richard Dietz are still feting his memory. On Saturday, Budd and Dietz were, according to an invitation from the Rockingham County GOP, the guests of honor at a dinner named for Helms and former President Ronald Reagan. 

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Dietz, a Republican, is running against N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman for one of two seats on the state Supreme Court. These races could swing the court on reproductive freedom and voting rights. As a judge, Dietz’s political views are difficult to pin down, but judges are expected to be fair, to decide the law without favor. 

There was nothing very fair about Helms’ views. The senator referred to homosexuality as “revolting conduct” and bitterly despised federal funding to combat the AIDS epidemic, treating the virus as if it was a righteous punishment from God. 

Straight, white Christian men aren’t the only people who might have to plead their case before Dietz in court. If the judge has no stomach for the worst of Helms’ views, he should say so. 

Meanwhile, Budd, a Trump-backed businessman from Winston-Salem, is running against Democrat Cheri Beasley for one of North Carolina’s two pivotal Senate seats. Budd, who currently holds a seat in Congress, is polished. He’s a hardline conservative, an anti-abortion, pro-guns candidate who talks about Republican things like stopping socialism and securing the border.

He’s also beholden to former President Trump’s ideas, chief among them a general distrust for elections that they lose. 

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Ted Budd, left, of North Carolina, reacts as he takes the stage with former President Donald Trump, who endorsed him, during a rally, Saturday, April 9, 2022, in Selma, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Neither of these candidates are Helms. But it means something that GOP candidates in North Carolina are still burning a candle for Helms.

It says that Republicans in North Carolina have not yet come to grips with Helms’ messy, racist legacy. They wouldn’t have to of course, because Helms wasn’t after them.

“As an alumna of the then-still-segregated Perry High School [in Franklin County, N.C.], my brothers and sisters and I were the target of politicians like Jesse Helms who wanted to deny us our rights,” says Bobbie Richardson, the former state legislator from Franklin who leads North Carolina’s Democratic Party.

“Congressman Budd’s attendance to a fundraiser held in his name is a slap in the face to North Carolinians still fighting for true equality and justice.”

A Poorly Kept Secret 

For generations of Americans, Helms, a native of Monroe, North Carolina, was the embodiment of Southern prejudice.

He might have been lionized after his death and hailed for his dogged dedication to his beliefs, as if that’s a defense for believing bad things. But Helms’ star waxed as other openly white supremacist politicians’ waned in the late 20th century, gussying up rotten old ideas about race and making them more palatable to the suburban conservative.

Helms didn’t invent the dog whistle, but for decades he was the biggest and meanest dog blowing on it. 

He might not call himself a “segregationist,” but he would oppose the integration of schools. He wasn’t a racist, but he would do everything in his power to block a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. and oppose virtually every part of the Civil Rights Movement.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade racial discrimination, Helms called it “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”

A racist 1990 Helms ad, playing on white fears that “racial quotas” would cost them a job, helped Helms fend off a fierce challenge from Harvey Gantt, the first Black student to go to Clemson University and the first Black mayor in Charlotte.

The late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., grabs hold of his opponent’s supporter as he departs his voting precinct in Raleigh, N.C., in this Nov. 6, 1990 file photo. (AP Photo/Bob Jordan)

“I know better than anyone how my opponent exploited the most divisive forms of politics to win a campaign and used his time in office to vehemently oppose civil rights efforts and deny economic and educational opportunities to all Americans,” Gantt said in a statement this week after the Helms dinner.

During the Gantt race, Republicans also sent postcards to Black neighborhoods, telling eligible voters they weren’t eligible and threatening jail time if they tried to. The senator’s campaign settled with the U.S. Justice Department over the mailers two years later, but not before postcards went out to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians in predominantly Black districts.

Helms and company claimed to be concerned about voter fraud. Sound familiar? 

Even though actual voter fraud is vanishingly rare, Budd and many of the most prominent leaders in the modern Republican Party talk loudly and often about voter fraud, usually to justify the hundreds of bills Republicans have filed in state legislatures to limit voting access just since the 2020 election.  

In 2013, North Carolina Republicans in the state legislature crafted a big voting bill by researching Black North Carolinians’ preferred ways of voting — how and when and where — and systemically building obstacles to them, federal courts found. By then, Helms had been dead for five years but somewhere his cantankerous old spirit appreciated their cleverness.

When voters go to the polls in less than two months, they’ll probably be thinking about what politicians like Budd and Dietz say and do, not what Jesse Helms said and did. 

But like it or not candidates who celebrate figures like Helms are saying something troubling by stumping at a dinner named for the late senator.

Helms left office about two decades ago but plenty of North Carolinians can still feel his hot breath on their neck. That’s especially true for anyone who’s ever felt threatened for voting, or felt not fit for a public school because of the color of their skin, or felt like an abomination for who they love. 

Helms is an embarrassment to this state. Perhaps someday he will be an embarrassment to North Carolina’s Republican Party too.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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