Skip to main content

Sources: Helms won't seek re-election

Jesse Helms
Jesse Helms has been in the Senate since 1973.  

By Jonathan Karl
CNN Washington Bureau

RALEIGH, North Carolina (CNN) -- North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, an influential conservative Republican, will announce Wednesday that he won't seek a sixth term in 2002, GOP officials in Washington and North Carolina told CNN on Tuesday.

Helms is expected make the announcement Wednesday evening on Raleigh television station WRAL, where he worked as a political commentator before winning his Senate seat in 1972.

The 79-year-old Helms is the ranking Republican and former chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has suffered from a variety of health problems over the past few years, and his retirement was widely expected in political circles.

WRAL General Manager Bill Peterson said Helms will deliver his taped announcement during the station's 6 p.m. newscast.

Quotes show it's hard to be neutral about Helms What would a post-Helms Senate look like?
Photo gallery: From firebrand to kingmaker  
Message Board: The political spectrum  

"We don't know what that announcement will be," Peterson said.

A spokesman for Helms on Tuesday would not confirm the content or time of any Helms announcement, although he did say the senator was "working on a statement."

"I think that's a foregone conclusion that he's going to announce that he's not going to run for his sixth term," GOP media strategist Marc Rotterman told CNN on Tuesday.

"I would find it completely impossible that he would announce that he is running again. He's made no effort at all to contact his money people, his operatives around the state, so I think it's highly unlikely that he will run," Rotterman said.

With Helms out of the picture, North Carolina native and one-time GOP presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole could make a run for her party's Senate nomination. And, former North Carolina Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth could resurface in a bid for another shot at the Senate, which he left after losing to Democrat John Edwards in 1998.

Helms in an undated photo.  

A perennial darling of North Carolina conservatives, Helms has won friends nationally and internationally for his often genteel Southern sociability even as he irritated his opponents, some world leaders, supporters of government funding for the arts and groups seeking wider support and recognition.

Helms' seat on the Foreign Relations Committee has allowed him to exert a strong rightward pull on U.S. policy toward the United Nations and Cuba. He also holds seats on the Agriculture Committee, where he looks out for North Carolina's extensive tobacco industry, and on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

When the GOP took over both houses of Congress following the 1994 midterm elections, Helms became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The post allowed him to advance his long-held anti-communist line, despite the demise of the Cold War.

He also forged odd friendships, including a bond with U2 lead vocalist Bono, who approached Helms earlier this year to discuss retirement of Third World debt.

Helms pressured the United Nations to make substantial changes before it received millions of dollars in U.S. arrears, he assisted in the passage of "Helms-Burton" bill to further box in Cuba's President Fidel Castro, and worked to scuttle the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. His run as head of the committee ended earlier this year with the Democratic takeover of the Senate.

Back home, Helms held on to his Senate seat despite some close electoral calls.

Helms and Bono
Earlier this year, Helms met with rock star Bono to discuss the AIDS crisis in Africa and other Third World issues.  

His first term in the Senate earned Helms a reputation as someone willing to stand up for frequently unpopular conservative causes. The newfound attention brought him an unexpected vice presidential nomination at the 1976 GOP convention -- with the support of some 800 delegates -- and election to a second term in 1978.

But it was his two runs against Charlotte Democratic Mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996 -- and the Republican takeover of both the House and Senate that occurred between those two elections -- that vaulted Helms to political superstar status in many respects.

The Helms camp billed the 1990 contest against Gantt as a referendum on affirmative action. It featured a television spot showing two white hands crumpling a rejection letter while a voice stated: "You were the best qualified for that job, but they had to give it to a minority."

It has been social issues such as affirmative action and federal funding for the arts, and his aversion to homosexuality that have kept attention on Helms.

Offended by works such as some of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and pieces devised by performance artist Karen Finley, Helms has sought repeatedly to block funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, focusing his ire on any creation of a sexually explicit nature that has received federal money.

Among Democrats, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall has said she will run for the seat. Others eyeing the seat include state Rep. Dan Blue, a former state House speaker, and Charlotte investor Mark Erwin.

-- CNN's Major Garrett, Ian Christopher McCaleb and Matt Smith contributed to this report.

• Sen. Jesse Helms
• Senate Foreign Relations Committee
• United Nations
• U2 Official Site
• National Endowment for the Arts

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.


Back to the top