So long, Jesse

Gloria Steinem, Kweisi Mfume, Phyllis Schlafly and other political observers applaud and mourn the departure of Jesse Helms.

Published August 23, 2001 10:52PM (EDT)

Many people greeted the news that Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., will not seek reelection in 2002 with a sigh of relief, or open celebration. Others mourned the end of a political career of a man who fought homosexuality and affirmative action, and led crusades against communism and government funding for "obscene" art. Certainly, Helms' retirement marks the end of an era in American politics. Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan wrote Wednesday, "If you want to know why our politics is so racially polarized, and why Republicans still can't get much more than 10 percent of the black vote, then take a look at the career of Jesse Helms."

Some say Helms' departure is a golden opportunity for Republicans to create a more tolerant image for the party. Speculation has alrady begun that Helms' retirement could make a U.S. senator out of Elizabeth Dole. Salon spoke to a group of activists, writers and politicians to get their reactions to the news and the potential fallout.

Pioneer feminist and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem

We should have been able to retire him much earlier. He never represented the majority of opinion in his state, only those with enough ability to go to the polls.

Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative advocacy group

Sen. Jesse Helms has carried the conservative torch in the Senate for nearly 30 years. It is hard to imagine a Senate without Helms' championing the right to life, the Boy Scouts and American sovereignty. He has earned our thanks for relentlessly challenging the United Nations and all of its dangerous treaties. Senator Helms is loved by conservatives and no one can replace him.

Paul Luebke, Democratic state representative and author of "Tar Heel Politics 2000"

This is very important in two ways. For state politics, because it opens up an opportunity for a new generation of Republicans to compete to go to the U.S. Senate. And second, for national politics, it means the end of hard right Republicans coming from North Carolina to the national stage.

Some people are talking about Lauch Faircloth coming back, but most people here don't give him much of a chance to win that primary. The real fight is between Liddy Dole and Rep. Richard Burr from Winston-Salem, N.C., who's a real rising star in the Republican Party.

With Helms gone, I think people will finally see that North Carolina is more moderate than South Carolina or Alabama or Mississippi. This is a politically diverse state. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the statehouse. We have a Democratic governor, one Democratic U.S. senator. The state is basically moderate. Jesse Helms is just epiphenomenal. He's an amazingly talented politician who's extremely skilled at getting his message across. He was willing to use hard right issues like strong anti-gay and anti-affirmative action themes to get elected, but the state has really changed.

But any suggestion that he's retiring because he doesn't want to be in the minority is silly. This is a man who thrived on being a minority of one. He loved nothing more than to be on the losing side of a 99-1 vote. The reality is, the Jessecrats, who were basically segregationist Democrats, are dying out and more moderates are moving into the state. The country club Republicans who have moved into the state have real qualms about somebody who is openly anti-gay, pushes the 10 commandments. You can't run as a Helms clone and win a statewide election here.

Helms is making his announcement on the TV station where he did his five-minute liberal-bashing nightly essay for 12 years. He used to say things like, "We ought to put a fence around this zoo of Chapel Hill [the state's liberal bastion] and charge admission." He positioned himself as a real champion of traditional, small-town values, the Andy Griffith of the right. But the state has changed on him.

Kweisi Mfume, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP

The departure of Jesse Helms now gives both the Democratic and the Republican parties an opportunity to field a slate of candidates who are much closer to the thinking and the beliefs of most Americans. We would hope that both parties would seize this chance to offer voters in North Carolina an opportunity to choose a candidate well suited for the Senate, but more important, a candidate to bring balance to the issues that face all of us, including the issue of civil rights.

David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union

No one with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan had more impact on the growth of the conservative movement than Sen. Jesse Helms.

Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights watchdog organization

Hurrah. Jesse Helms has been a vicious racist politician since he defeated the Greek N.C. Rep. Nick Galifanakis with the slogan "Elect one of us" in his first Senate race in 1972. In his 1992 race with Harvey Gannt, the African-American mayor of Charlotte, N.C., he ran an advertisement showing a black hand snatching away a job from a white hand, harking back to Jim Crow politics. He has been against everything good, decent and positive for America.

The ultraconservative movement led by Patrick Buchanan, Helms and Strom Thurmond fortunately has created more smoke than long-term fire. Helms' retirement, 20 years too late, will have little effect on the conservative political movement. It is already gasping for air. Bush understands this and knows the danger of catering to its demands. The South has long left Helms and other divisive leaders. Sen. John Edwards, not Helms, is the future of Dixie. Elizabeth Dole will have a difficult time keeping this Republican seat.

By Compiled by Salon staff

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