Jesse A. Helms


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(b. Monroe, North Carolina, 18 Oct. 1921; d. Raleigh, North Carolina, 4 July 2008)

US; US Senator 1972–2003 The son of a police chief, Jesse Helms was educated at Wingate College and Wake Forest University. After a period in the navy (1942–5) he became city editor of the Raleigh Times and a member of the Raleigh City Council (1957–61). From 1960 to 1972 Helms was Executive Vice-President of the Tobacco Radio Network. Elected to the Senate in 1972, Helms made a mark as an ideological conservative and as a major fund-raiser where direct mail and tobacco money enabled him to finance not only his own expensive campaigns but also those of like-minded politicians. His conservative crusade pitted him against a range of liberal policies including abortion, affirmative action, civil rights, and high domestic spending. In foreign policy his instinctive opposition to Communist and left-wing regimes made him supportive of dictatorships.

A staunch defender of the tobacco industry, Helms defended its interest on the Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Committee. As the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Helms became its chair when Republicans recaptured the Senate in 1994 and he served in this position until 2001, pitting his hardline views against the Clinton presidency. He sponsored the Helms–Burton Act of 1995 which aimed to prevent US companies doing business with Cuba. Although Helms acquired positions of power in Congress he was widely seen as lacking policy and legislative competence and his effect was generally more of an irritant than anything else.

His high-profile conservatism made him vulnerable in a rapidly changing state. The race against Jim Hunt in 1984 was extremely expensive, as were the 1990 and 1996 races which were also closely fought. Helms was outspoken against the many causes of which he disapproved, earning him the name of ‘Senator No’ from his many opponents. That he survived in the Senate for so long was a testament to the enduring appeal of his style of conservative politics.

Subjects: Politics.

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