Jesse Helms, conservative GOP firebrand from North Carolina, announces retirement plans
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Sen. Jesse Helms, the 79-year-old Republican whose sharp condemnations of communism and liberalism characterized three contentious decades on Capitol Hill, said Wednesday that he will not seek re-election next year.
The five-term Republican cited his age in his decision.
”I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 and was elected and lived to finish a sixth term,” he said. ”This, my family and I decided unanimously, I should not do – and, ladies and gentlemen, I shall not.”
The taped remarks were shown on the evening newscast of WRAL-TV, the station where Helms’ fiery editorials helped build support for his election to the Senate in 1972. Helms noted he will have served 30 years in the Senate when his term ends in 2003.
”Not in my wildest imagination did it occur to me that such a privilege would ever be mine,” Helms said, his voice breaking slightly near the end of his 10-minute speech.
”Thank you dear friends, God bless you, and as Ron Reagan always used to say, God bless America,” he said.
Helms taped the address at the TV station before an invitation-only group of friends and family. He then headed to his vacation home on Lake Gaston, north of Raleigh, to watch the broadcast with his wife, Dorothy.
Within minutes of the announcement, President Bush praised Helms as ”a tireless defender of our nation’s freedom and a champion of democracy abroad.”
Helms’ departure could make it more difficult for the GOP to recapture the Senate, where Democrats hold a 50-49 majority, with one independent.
Republicans are defending 20 Senate seats next year, including the one held by 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who has said he will not seek re-election. Democrats are defending 14, none of them open.
Long before Helms’ plans became public, possible successors began exploring bids to replace him – including former labor secretary and Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole.
”Senator Helms’ decision to retire in 2003 signals the end of an era in our state,” Dole said from her mother’s home in Salisbury. ”He has been a relentless watchdog with a strong commitment to North Carolina and our nation.”
Other Republicans considering a bid are Rep. Richard Burr, former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot and Lexington lawyer Jim Snyder.
So far, the only Democrat to enter the race is Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. There is speculation that Democrats will ask former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt to run.
People close to Helms said for weeks that relatives were urging him not to seek re-election. He has also had several years of health problems that affected his heart, legs and balance. He had both knees replaced in 1998 and since then has used a motorized scooter to get around Capitol Hill.
The reality of a Senate without Helms was slow to sink in.
”I’m not sure anyone will be as consistently conservative and fearlessly conservative as he has been,” said Tom Ellis, a Raleigh attorney who helped guide Helms’ early campaigns and founded his fund-raising organization, the Congressional Club.
Near Helms’ hometown of Monroe, about 20 people gathered at the Jesse Helms Center to watch the announcement on a big-screen television. Linda Isner, who has known Helms for 30 years, said she wished the news was different.
”It was false hope,” she said, acknowledging that physical ailments had taken a toll on Helms. ”He really is a unique individual.”
Helms never won more than 55 percent of the vote in any Senate election, but nonetheless became an icon to conservatives, advocating a return to prayer in the classroom and traditional family values. He was equally as committed to criticizing ”the homosexual agenda,” affirmative action and federal funding for the National Endowment of the Arts.
In Washington, he was known as ”Senator No,” unafraid to use Senate rules and his power as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block payments to the United Nations or appointments of ambassadors. He also helped place sanctions against communist nations.
”As a politician, one of his chief legacies was he had courage in his convictions,” said John Dodd, director of the Jesse Helms Center. ”He did not put his finger in the wind to decide how he thinks and this is unusual.
”While he was a polarizing figure to many people, he also showed he could be an effective senator for this state,” he said.
Others were glad to see him go.
”I guess the 19th century is over now,” said Democratic pollster Sam Watts.
Helms insisted he will not vanish from public life, noting he has more than a year left before his term ends. He said ”a great deal of work lies ahead of the Senate this fall and next year.”
Watching the announcement at the center, Hampton Pitts, dean of the Wingate University business school, said Helms made the right decision.
”He’s been under pressure for 30 years and he deserves to do this,” he said. ”But I would take my chances on him till he was 88 because his mind is still sharp.”
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