The black Jesse Helms


Geraldine Sealey
June 7, 2004 9:45PM (UTC)

"Jesse Helms is back! And this time, he's black." This is, no lie, the proud slogan of Vernon Robinson, a black conservative GOP candidate running for Congress in North Carolina's 5th District. Actually, it's what a Wilmington, N.C., newspaper had to say about Robinson, but he liked it so much he emblazoned it on his Web site, along with a photo of the men together and smiling.

What does it mean to be a black Jesse Helms, in Robinson's view? Robinson's rhetoric is so poisonous it has made national headlines, the campaign site proudly admits. His latest anti-immigration ad says it all. Cue the theme to the Twilight Zone, and the announcer begins: "The aliens are here, but they didn't come in a spaceship. They've filled our criminal courtrooms and clogged our schools ... They sponge off the American taxpayer ... they've even taken over the DMV. These aliens commit heinous crimes ... You walk into a McDonald's restaurant to order a Big Mac, and find to your horror that the employees don't speak English." Twilight Zone, indeed.

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The ad made headlines when a station pulled it over Memorial Day weekend because the required disclaimer at the end telling listeners who paid for the spot is in Spanish. Actually, it starts with "Yo, Gringo," then continues on in Espanol. A station manager explained that the ad was pulled because most listeners wouldn't understand who paid for it. (It has since been put back on the air with an English discaimer.) The "Yo Gringo" touch, the campaign explained, was intended to make the point that when people speak Spanish, lots of non-Spanish speakers don't understand them. "In so doing we make our case why English should be the official language of the United States," Robinson told a local paper.

The immigration ad isn't the first offensive spot generated by Robinson's campaign. Last month, he ran one featuring a spoof of "Jeopardy," with the topic: "Homosexual rights." The ad ridiculed his opponents as a "feminist who voted to create special rights for homosexuals," a university trustee who "let two lesbians get married in broad daylight in the campus church," and another who "brags he is a tolerant Republican," which, the announcer warned, is a "code word for gay-friendly." In comparison, the ad says, Robinson is a "courageous conservative." The scariest part: Robinson is a favorite to win the July 20 primary in his district.

Robinson, a great black hope of the GOP, has won the endorsements of many Republican and conservative luminaries. Fox News says he would fill the void of black Republican congresspeople left when J.C. Watts retired. Former Republican V.P. nominee Jack Kemp called Robinson "a true Ronald Reagan Conservative." The Wall Street Journal has called Vernon "the next Black Republican Congressman." Robinson's Web site notes that in previous runs for office he has been endorsed by Helms, Elizabeth Dole, Dick Armey, Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, Pat Buchanan and Jeb Bush. He worked for President George H.W. Bush. In March, the Wall Street Journal's John Fund called Robinson "intriguing," and described his stellar conservative credentials as such: "In his years on the City Council he has consistently voted in favor of tax cuts, property rights and crime control and against racial quotas, gun control and corporate welfare." But so far, the hallmark of Robinson's campaign seems to be spewing hate.

Republicans should distance themselves from his hateful rhetoric on principle, but if they need another reason, there's the universally understood message of losing votes. Is "the aliens are here, but they didn't come in a spaceship" the "compassionately conservative" message President Bush wants his party conveying to Latinos? Doubt it.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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