Many of those outside of North Carolina never could quite understand how Jesse Helms won reelection to the U.S. Senate so many times in what is considered a moderate southern state. It is no wonder many were baffled by Helms’ political success considering the caricature his opponents and many in the media so often painted of him. Those who knew Senator Helms had no trouble understanding his appeal to voters though. In eulogizing Helms this week, many of those closest to him described attributes he possessed that any politician would do well to follow, regardless of their political ideology.
Remember who you serve. Constituent service in Jesse Helms’ office was second to none. North Carolinians knew they could call on Helms’ office to get things done. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, if you needed help in North Carolina you called (or wrote) Jesse Helms’ office to get action. Not only did Helms provide incredible constituent service, but he was accessible as well, especially to young people. Jonathan Hill, who worked for Helms for many years beginning in 1983, said Helms told campaign staff that anytime a young person came to his office and wanted a picture with him that they were to come “get him.” Hill said Helms always made time for constituents visiting the Senate – especially groups of young people. Politicians always seem to find time for the big donors, but not all are as generous with their time for the fifth grade class on a field trip
Treat others with respect. Not only did Helms make sure the constituents he worked for received prompt attention, but those who worked for him spoke about the kindness and consideration he showed to them as well. Hill spent many hours on the campaign trail with Helms and commented on the great love Helms had for his family, and particularly the loving way he treated his wife, Dot (“He put her on a pedestal.”). Those who worked for Helms said he treated his campaign staff as his family. Hill said he never heard Helms use profanity and that he always addressed those who worked for him, as well as all those who worked in the Senate and elsewhere, with courtesy. He said if you asked those who worked in the Senate, from campaign staff to elevator operators, who their favorite Senator was, most would say Jesse Helms.
Make sure voters know where you stand (then stand there). In the legendary 1984 Senate race he ran against popular NC governor Jim Hunt, Helms pointed to Hunt’s shift in position on tax increases in a very effective television ad in which he asked “Where do you stand, Jim?” It was effective because it reminded voters that whether they loved him or hated him, there was never any doubt where Jesse Helms stood. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard people who voted for Helms say “I don’t always agree with him, but I always know where he stands.” Elizabeth Dole, who took Helms seat in the Senate in 2002 said on the Senate floor this week, “"Even those who disagreed with Jesse on an issue could respect the fact that he always stood tall and firm for his convictions, his faith, his family, his home state of North Carolina.” Not only did the voters of North Carolina and those in the U.S. Senate know where Jesse stood, but so did those around the world. In his 2000 speech to the United Nations Security Council (the first time a U.S. Senator addressed the council), Helms plainly commented on the “lack of gratitude” expressed by those who did not appreciate that “the U.N. lives and breathes on the hard-earned money of the American taxpayers.” When Jesse Helms spoke, there was no ambiguity, and when he said something he followed through with action to match his words.
Don’t compromise your principles. At his funeral Tuesday, Helms' granddaughter, North Carolina District Court Judge Jennifer Knox, quoted her grandfather saying “You can compromise on your preferences, but never your principles." Jesse Helms never compromised on the issues of importance to him and his supporters. I recall a conversation I had with a woman in my church many years ago who was terribly upset over the prospect that Helms would not win reelection. The race was close (as all his races were) and she didn’t think he was going to be able to pull out another win. She said, “I just don’t know what will happen if he doesn’t win. If he is not in the Senate there won’t be anyone there to speak for us.” By “us” she was talking about conservatives and, more specifically, people of faith. There were other Republicans, many of them even conservatives, in the U.S. Senate who would still be there even if Jesse Helms lost that race, but she knew Helms would stand firm on the issues that were important to her and that was something she could not say of any other politician.
Don’t worry about what your opponents think of you. What a contrast Jesse Helms was to so many of the politicians today who work so hard for approval from the media. On a personal level, Helms was cordial to even his fiercest political opponents, but he did not care much about what others said about him. Senator McConnell spoke Tuesday of Helms’ attitude toward those who disagreed with him (as reported in the Rocky Mount Telegram), “’He had a perpetual calm about what other people said, but for Jesse, standing on principal and fighting back in defense of one's views was never to be confused with animosity for one's adversaries’…After The New York Times published one particularly scathing editorial, McConnell recalled, a young Helms staff worker prepared a harsh rebuttal. Helms read the letter then turned to the aide and said, ‘Son, just so you understand, I don't care what The New York Times thinks about me.’”
Regardless of whether a politician is liberal or conservative, or what their position is on the war, or abortion or guns or any other issue, if they serve their constituents well, treat others with respect, make clear where they stand and then stand without compromising their principles without regard to what anyone says or thinks of them, voters will elect them, and reelect them, time and time again. That is a lesson anyone seeking elected office would do well to learn from the example of Senator Jesse Helms.