The Senate’s most renowned right-winger faces a new day in the Tar Heel state.
Originally published in The Nation.
FIFTEEN PEOPLE WERE WAITING when Harvey Gantt showed up at the Whitaker Mill Senior Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. In a small lounge room with straight-back chairs and a bulletin board full of photos, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate schmoozed with his audience for just a moment before pushing aside the microphone, stepping forward and reminding everyone that the next day, July 30, marked the thirty-first anniversary of Medicare.
“How many agree that it’s a great program?” asked Gantt, the 53-year-old former mayor of Charlotte. “It’s helped you with your medical bills. You’ve been enjoying your golden years and living in dignity, and some people are upset about it.” Gantt was of course referring to his two-time rival, Republican incumbent Jesse Helms, who last year voted to cut Medicare by $270 billion. “He not only wants to cut Medicare, but he turns around and proposes cutting taxes for the wealthiest people in America. Now, that is not fair.”
Although his audience was small, Gantt was reaffirming an important theme of his second Senate race: This time around, it doesn’t matter that Jesse Helms has befriended almost every Latin American dictator of the past two decades, or that he has appointed himself the nation’s chief art censor.
What does matter is that Helms has voted against the interests of his most mainstream constituents: Old folks with big medical bills. Parents daunted by the costs of college. Workers facing layoffs. Consumers who can’t afford prescription drugs. On the campaign trail, Gantt has taken up an economic populism that, while hardly radical, is still unheard of in the corporate world of North Carolina Democratic politics. Some campaign watchers think this could be Gantt’s ticket to unseating Helms—and becoming the first black Southern senator since Reconstruction.
“There are thousands of people in North Carolina who don’t have much interest in politics, but they’re watching their wages falling, they’re having trouble finding insurance and they’re seeing their economic security eroding,” says Chris Fitzsimon, director of the Raleigh-based Common Sense Foundation. “If Gantt can get those people to the polls, the overwhelming majority will vote for him.”
Can he pull it off this year, after coming within three percentage points of winning six years ago? Besides his new message, Gantt has several things working in his favor: a new economic and political climate, changing demographics and a more experienced campaign organization. But he still has Jesse Helms as his opponent—and the four-term Senator has proved time and again that he will do whatever it takes to win.
When Gantt first challenged Helms, his campaign electrified a lot of people—blacks, environmentalists, artists—who have traditionally felt shut out of North Carolina’s Democratic Party. Gantt got his start in neighborhood politics, and the 1990 campaign had a distinctly grassroots feel. His friend and campaign manager, now-Congressman Mel Watt, had never before orchestrated a statewide race, and it showed.
Gantt’s first Senate bid centered around loose themes like education and the environment. He took strong and unpopular stands on the death penalty and gay rights—but he avoided talking about economic fairness, fearing it would come across as “class warfare.” Gantt himself is not a natural class warrior: The product of a blue-collar family from Charleston, South Carolina, he’s now a $570,000-a-year architect with a tennis court in his backyard.
WHAT’S MORE, GANTT RECEIVED a fair amount of public backing from an old friend, NationsBank president Hugh McColl. That support made him reticent to talk about corporate-greed issues like the savings-and-loan bailout, which Helms supported. “His message in 1990 was for white middle- and upper-middle-class people,” says Paul Luebke, a state legislator from Durham and author of Tar Heel Politics. “There was little in that message that made sense for a factory worker without a college degree.”
Those blue-collar workers proved to be the swing voters. And in the final days of the campaign, Helms catered to them with a television commercial showing two white hands crumpling a rejection letter. “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified,” a narrator said. “But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”
North Carolina has changed somewhat in the six years since the notorious “hands ad” won Helms the election. The Senator’s elderly loyalists are dying, while Gantt’s young supporters are coming into voting age. Moreover, some 600,000 people have migrated to the state, many of them taking high-tech jobs and settling into suburbs. These newcomers might have voted for Republicans like New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, but that’s very different from voting for Helms.
Ominously for Gantt, since 1990 three times as many new Republicans have registered as new Democrats. Yet there are also more Republicans like Barry Campbell, a 29-year-old technology consultant from Raleigh who plans to vote for both Bob Dole and Harvey Gantt. “I’m far more in line with Mr. Helms’s economic ideas than Mr. Gantt’s. But Helms is such an embarrassment to North Carolina,” Campbell says.
The economic climate has changed too. Six years of corporate mergers and layoffs in the state—such as Glaxo’s takeover of Burroughs Wellcome, which resulted in a loss of 1,700 pharmaceutical jobs—have made people more aware of their own financial insecurity and less willing to scapegoat.
In this new environment, Gantt decided to try a different approach. He hired Jim Andrews, who ran the campaigns of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and Georgia Governor Zell Miller, to manage his own bid. Andrews has been crafting a message that targets both the financial fears and the class resentments of swing voters. Gantt has raised more than $3.5 million to get the message out, 70 percent of it from outside North Carolina. Twenty-one labor unions have donated most of his PAC money, though the bulk of his war chest comes from 50,000 individual donations.
This spring, Gantt bashed Glaxo, a sacred cow in North Carolina, for its lobbying efforts to preserve a GATT drug-patent extension that would cost consumers as much as $2 billion. Helms had interceded in the Senate to protect the patents. “When you go out there and say, ‘Look, it is just wrong for Jesse Helms to be sitting there voting in a $2 billion loophole for the Glaxo corporation,’ is Harvey anti-corporate? No,” Andrews says. “But you don’t have to make money off the backs of millions of people.”
Since then, Gantt has offered proposals to increase Pell Grants for college tuition and to ban drug-pricing policies that favor large H.M.O.s over local pharmacies. He has championed cutting off tax breaks for drug companies that increase their prices beyond the rate of inflation. Some of his ideas have been borrowed from the national Democrats, including a plan to eliminate tax breaks for corporations that move their jobs overseas.
The strategy worked in the primary, in which Gantt tromped former Glaxo C.E.O. Charlie Sanders by a 52-to-42 margin. “After all the hype of the Reagan years, there remains a core constituency of Democrats in this country-working people—and Harvey directly appealed to that constituency,” says Duke University historian Lawrence Goodwyn. “It’s a New Deal campaign.”
Gantt has taken some positions that disappoint progressives. He supports Clinton-style welfare reform, saying, “Welfare dependency if you can get a job is not something to flaunt before those who work two or three jobs just to get by.” And he defends tobacco, a mainstay of North Carolina agriculture, opposing Clinton’s modest regulatory efforts and refusing to draw distinctions between Helms’s views and his own.
PROGRESSIVES ARE WILLING TO FORGIVE GANTT his occasional lapse into traditional Southern Democratic politics. But many worry about his inattention to the grassroots activists who gave him momentum six years ago. “We are running this as a message-and-communications shop,” says Andrews. “We made a decision at the beginning of this campaign that we are making a case.” That means focusing on raising big dollars and spending them on television—not on building local organizations, working with environmentalists and pro-choice activists, or printing bumper stickers and yard signs. Those grassroots activities are all being left to a state Democratic-coordinated campaign.
Luebke, the state legislator, worries that Gantt’s media-heavy strategy “leaves a lot of willing volunteers frustrated.” His explanation of the strategic shift? That Gantt “has more Washington influence in the campaign, and it’s the D.C. position that more thirty-second spots, paid for by well-to-do donors, is how you win a campaign.”
Meanwhile, Helms’s campaign seems like a replay of 1990. His summer commercials were mild in tone; in one, birds eat out of a feeder while the Senator’s granddaughter says, “People who criticize my granddad just don’t know him. My grandfather is just a kind and caring and warm person.” But after Labor Day, Helms began attacking Gantt for supporting gay rights and accepting an award from the American Civil Liberties Union. Republican National Committee member Ferrell Blount, who lives in Bethel, North Carolina, hints that the mudslinging will continue. “I don’t think Senator Helms has ever come out of the blocks with a negative campaign,” he says. “But if his opponent goes negative, Senator Helms is willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
Some Helms supporters admit they’re worried. At 74, the Senator looks frail; he’s parted company with brilliant strategists Carter Wrenn and Tom Ellis; and his opponent is stronger than he was six years ago. Helms and Gantt were virtually tied in one recent poll, though another gave Helms a ten-point lead.
Of course, Gantt still faces the obstacle of race. For sure, some North Carolinians have come a long way. In Morehead City, retired real-estate agent Carolyn Mann says it would have been unimaginable to vote for a black candidate a decade ago—but now she supports Gantt. “I think there’s a lot of money behind Helms,” says the 65-year-old ticket splitter. “We need someone who can talk without someone paying for what he says.”
No one knows whether there are enough voters like Mann. But if Gantt does pull it off, it will mean more than the offing of the Senate’s most outspoken right-winger. It will send a strong message to Southern Democrats that a winning campaign doesn’t have to center around conservative themes like cutting taxes and building prisons. And it will signal a tremendous shift in North Carolina politics. Six years ago, Helms convinced enough white voters that the root of their economic problems was African-Americans; maybe this year Gantt will convince those same voters that electing a black man is part of the solution.