A pair of powerful senators

Staff WriterJanuary 5, 2003 

U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms is a household name -- undoubtedly the most famous political figure North Carolina has ever produced. Former Sen. Furnifold Simmons is now largely forgotten.

But Helms and Simmons serve as bookends to Tar Heel 20th-century politics.

Their similarities are intriguing. Both served in the Senate 30 years, a North Carolina record. Both rose to national power -- Helms as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Simmons as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Both helped transform the politics of their state and time. Both provided valuable services to their country. Both appealed to Christian conservatives. Both of their records were marred by the politics of race.

Simmons -- nicknamed "the Great White Father" -- was the chief strategist for turning North Carolina into a one-party state. He was the brains behind the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 in which the Democrats broke the back of the Republican-Populist coalition that had gained control of North Carolina politics.

Simmons, a Jones County lawyer who was born in 1854 and died in 1940, would be North Carolina's political boss during the first three decades of the 20th century. His organization became known as the Simmons Machine.

He was responsible for the creation of Fort Bragg and the Intracoastal Waterway from Boston to Wilmington. He helped push through the first income taxes on individuals and corporations to finance the U.S. effort in World War I. President Wilson relied on his help.

He lost re-election in 1930 during the Democratic primary -- thrown out by the Democrats after the apostasy of backing Republican Herbert Hoover over Democrat Al Smith in the 1928 presidential race.

Helms was instrumental in transforming North Carolina from a Democratic stronghold to a two-party state, making it acceptable for conservative Democrats -- dubbed "Jessecrats" -- to switch to the Republican Party.

His political organization dominated North Carolina politics in the last quarter of the 20th century, helping elect John East and Lauch Faircloth to the Senate. His organization helped move the state into big money, TV-oriented, attack-oriented campaigns.

Helms also was a national leader, helping midwife the Reagan revolution and pushing the country to the political right. Among his achievements was helping to reform the United Nations, stiffening the country's spine in the struggle against communist tyranny and reminding the nation of its old virtues -- self-reliance, spirituality and the primacy of the individual over the state.

But as the state's leading defender of segregation, and as an ardent opponent of all civil rights legislation, Helms was on the wrong side of history. Nor was his gay-bashing his finest moment. His shoot-from-the-lip candor -- admired by many -- often got him into trouble.

On Tuesday, Elizabeth Dole will be sworn into the office Helms has held for as long as many North Carolinians can remember.

And unlike Simmons, Helms leaves office under his own power, never having lost an election.

Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or robc@newsobserver.com.

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