Helms created our ‘Stonewall’

N.C. Senate Vote 90 was a defining moment for queer N.C.

by David Stout  Associate Editor  editor2@goqnotes.com
Published: July 26, 2008 in News

At the 40th Anniversary of the March on Washington, D.C., in 1963: Matt Foreman, Mandy Carter and Coretta Scott King. Photo credit: Mandy Carter

Mandy Carter leaps onto the comparison like a cat pouncing on a cricket. “Yes, I so agree,” she says excitedly. “That was a defining moment for the lesbian and gay community in North Carolina. I think you absolutely can call it this state’s version of Stonewall.”

The event Carter is referring to is the creation and year-long organizing of N.C. Senate Vote 90, a statewide political campaign founded by a handful of Triangle-area lesbians and gay men for the purpose of defeating virulently anti-gay Sen. Jesse Helms. The Republican senator from North Carolina was seeking his fourth term in the 1990 general election.

“We were all upset about Helms’ gay record,” Carter observes. “But as a black lesbian I was also very aware of his horrible record on civil rights. Even George Wallace and Strom Thurmond understood that things were changing, but Helms was not letting go. Let’s not forget that he was an equal opportunity destroyer.”

Anyone who even halfheartedly follows politics already knows that Helms was reelected. What many don’t know, however, is that some of the most significant gains won by the state’s LGBT community in the ensuing two and a half decades have risen from the ashes of NCSV90’s stinging defeat.

The advances haven’t come from the loss itself — the crucial exception being the unavoidable and unavoidably empowering realization that the LGBT community could have its collective breath knocked out on Tuesday and still get up on its feet on Wednesday. Rather, the gains have blossomed from the lessons learned, the groundwork laid and the coalitions assembled before the polling places even opened that fateful election day.

“This all really begins with Sue Hyde,” Carter recalls. “It was around 1989 and she was working for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She was in Durham for a hearing because the City Council was considering a gay anti-discrimination policy. Afterward, she asked a few of us what we were going to do about Jesse Helms.”

Hyde’s deceptively simple question sparked a house meeting of local activists, including host David Jones, Carter, openly gay Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg, Mab Segrest, Jim Duley, Jim Baxter and Meredith Emmett.

“We needed to do something, but we didn’t know what,” Carter says. “We didn’t know anything about what we were doing.” Still, there was enough energy and determination in that initial meeting to convince Carter to tell her bosses at Durham’s legendary women’s music label Ladyslipper that she was “going to take time off to work on this thing to defeat Helms.”

Carter, a nationally respected activist who started organizing with the War Resister’s League in the late ’60s in San Francisco, wound up campaign manager of the nebulous start-up, which after a bit of research was registered with the Federal Elections Commission as an independent expenditure political action committee.

“That meant we could raise and spend as much as we wanted, but we could have no contact with the Gantt campaign,” explains Carter.

Harvey Gantt, the African-American former mayor of Charlotte, was creating history with his bid for Helms’ seat. No black candidate had ever before run for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina and Gantt was actually making a strong showing in the early polling.

NCSV90’s launch was less auspicious. The group had an office but no money. Carter, at that point a full-time volunteer, says things turned around as word of the campaign spread.

“We had people contacting us from Greensboro, Charlotte, Asheville, Wilmington asking ‘how can I get involved?’ When we saw that, we decided it was time to go public in the traditional press. The response was incredible, and that’s when we knew we had something. Money started pouring in from our friends outside North Carolina. It was just remarkable.”

The PAC was now legitimately up and running, but organizers knew that money alone didn’t equal victory. It would take more than paid staff and media buys to defeat the Helms juggernaut. To maximize the odds of victory, they needed a voter army.

So, they assembled one — and forever changed the face of North Carolina politics.

“We had a strategy meeting in Chapel Hill where we were wondering how we would pull together enough votes to defeat Helms,” Carter remembers. “Even if we got every gay person to vote we figured it wouldn’t be enough. We started to think, who would work with us on this? That led us to get a copy of Helms’ voting record.

“Arts, environment, education, people of color, gay and lesbian allies, pro-choice — these were the groups we knew we should be in contact with. It was an alliance that we needed then and I’m happy to say that it still exists to this day. That historic moment really got down to the roots of who would be the progressive coalition in North Carolina.”

As the race — one of the most closely watched in the nation — unfolded through the spring and summer, NCSV90 volunteers statewide worked tirelessly canvassing neighborhoods, staffing phone banks, fundraising and registering voters. Gantt’s numbers continued to grow until he was actually leading in the polls.

And then the wheels fell off. In an 11th hour act of desperation, Helms’ campaign unleashed what has come to be known as simply “The Ad.”

The TV spot focused on a white man’s hands as he tore up a rejection notice for a job that, according to a voiceover, was given to a less qualified minority applicant “because of a racial quota.” The ad was blasted by moderate and left-wing pundits and politicians nationwide for its racist fear-mongering. But, Helms was unbowed and the spot stayed on the air.

A few weeks later, the embattled incumbent eeked out a win with 52.5 percent of the vote. It was a crushing loss for North Carolina’s LGBT community and the entire progressive coalition after they had worked so hard and come so very close.

“I was taping every ad during the campaign,” Carter says. “When I saw that one, I said this election’s over. But it still didn’t soften the blow because we had experienced all these mini victories — money, volunteers, this amazing alliance we had put together — along the way. To lose like that at the end was devastating.”

Today, the river of time has carved out enough emotional distance that the perspective required to accurately assess NCSV90’s “failure” is possible.

Beyond the progressive coalition that was established, other essential, lasting benefits from the campaign include EqualityNC — the statewide LGBT advocacy organization was founded as NC Pride PAC by key Senate Vote 90 organizers — as well as an increase in the number of openly gay elected or appointed officials in the state.

A couple of years after working with NCSV90, Mike Nelson successfully ran for the Carrboro Board of Aldermen. After serving just one term, in 1995 he became the first openly gay candidate to be elected mayor of a North Carolina city. Mark Kleinschmidt and Julia Boseman are additional out candidates who successfully campaigned for public office.

Amazingly, nearly three decades after the fact, one more advancement from the anti-Helms campaign is playing out before us right now, in the historic political race of another trailblazing African-American politician — this one seeking the nation’s highest office.

Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s primary victory and competitive general election polling in North Carolina is a testament to the courage of Harvey Gantt and the sweeping vision of a few gays and lesbians at a house party who were very early adopters of the real politics of change.

Looking at these results, it’s clear that the legacy of NCSV90 actually has little to do with loss or lack, but a great deal to do with increased common will, visibility, political standing and connectedness. The campaign ushered in a new era for LGBT North Carolinians. It should be celebrated for the remarkable victory history has revealed it to be.

“Helms has come and gone,” Carter concludes, speaking pensively. “But we’re still here, and in the long run we won.”