July 6, 2008

Why Jesse Helms Won

Photo by abbyladybug
When I think of Jesse Helms I think about a generator. Helms passing on Friday took me back to my early days living in North Carolina. I was trying to overcome my stereotypical view of Southerners as hillbilly hicks, or more accurately, racist hillbilly hicks. My liberal friends from the north couldn't understand how I could live in the state that sent Senator No to DC. My mother mentioned Helms frequently when we talked about politics. To her Helms symbolized everything that was wrong with American politics. My mom was a New Deal Democrat, Jesse Helms was the anti-Christ.
When elections rolled around I was polled first about Helms' chances then harangued about the ignorance of North state voters. People who didn't like Helms and didn't live in NC could not understand why anyone would vote for Jesse.
Over time I gained an appreciation of Senator Helms. No, I didn't become a zealot on government spending or blockading Cuba but I did learn why Jesse Helms drew so many votes even though many of his most controversial policies did not reflect the views of the voters he represented.
Jesse Helms understood what won elections, money and constituent service. He was a master of both. The NC Congressional Club was networking conservatives long before Al Gore invented the Internet, before we know what a personal computer was. Helms grew a support system that gave him an enormous edge in fund raising. At a time when most political money was raised within a candidates district Helms was raising money nationwide. He used his polarizing rhetoric to excite contributors and to draw hard lines on the political landscape. In doing so he kept the true believers happy and sending in those checks. Ever wonder who created the type of single issue, scorched earth politics used so successfully by the national environmental groups, their model is Helms' model. His was the early success story that so many groups copied. Few, if any, have done it better.
Money was only half the Helms magic, there was a second, possibly more important component to getting voters to pull his lever. Helms and his Senate staff were masters of constituent service. They helped people deal with the federal government. Problems with Social Security, a call from Senator Helms office could cut tons of red tape. Can't get FEMA to respond to your call, they get very helpful when the Senator intervenes. This is not about profit or power but about helping people solve problems, problems that the federal bureaucracy could easily solve when they were properly motivated. When you help people they remember it, they remember it when they go to the polls.
I worked for a radio station in Wanchese in my early years on the beach. When the emergency generator finally died it was Sen Helms who arranged for the replacement, an army surplus generator that powered the station through many dark and stormy nights in the 80's and 90's and may still be running. One of my jobs was to run it for 30 minutes every Sunday to make sure it started and it always started. If it hadn't, a call to Jesse's office would have fixed it. I don't remember how I knew but I knew Senator Helms was responsible. The community knew as well and they appreciated his help.
My mom celebrated the day Senator Helms left office. She announced the end of an era, the end of the Prince of Darkness. I saw the end of an era as well, the era of responsive government. Along with other local elected leaders we mourned the end of an office that would take our calls then do something about them. Senator Helms would be a tough act to follow.
Money and service make an unbeatable combination in an election year. Jesse Helm understood this and used the combination to defeat some tough opponents in his six terms in the Senate. Anyone thinking of running for office should copy Helm' politics. No not his conservatism but his basic strategies that still can't be beat.
Thanks for the help Senator, even if I didn't vote for you.
There is a good piece on Helms at Wikipedia. Sadly editing of this article by new or unregistered users is currently disabled due to vandalism. Even in death Helms stirs strong emotions.

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At 7:55 PM, Blogger Sandy said...

I never voted for Jesse Helms either but it is very refreshing to read that he did indeed have some actual redeeming qualities. Good for you to point them out.


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