Why I take the N.C. election personally

This is a personal story.

I am a strong supporter of President Obama primarily because I agree with his policy views, and I think his re-election provides the best chance for the best policy going forward. However, my support of him does not explain why I have worked so hard on the grassroots “get out the vote” aspects of his campaigns in 2008 and again this year (I didn’t go door-to-door for President Clinton, or for VP Gore or Sen Kerry).

The reason is encapsulated in this television commercial, the so-called “Hands” ad that appeared in the 1990 North Carolina Senate race between Senator Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt.

Like most kids, I voted like my parents, who are fairly conservative (but I should note not the least bit racist; in fact, the opposite) and so-voted for the re-election of President George HW Bush in 1988, the first time I was old enough to vote. However, I didn’t have a particularly strong party identification, in part because of the influence of my granddaddy who was a blue-dog, Eastern North Carolina Democrat with whom I spent much time growing up and who also had a great influence on me. But, I come from fairly conservative stock.

As the 1990 campaign approached, I recall mostly feeling like Senator Helms represented the “rear view mirror” of North Carolina and that it was time for a change. However, I was a person without a strong party identification and still thrashing about for my political identity. I volunteered a bit that year for Mayor Gantt’s campaign and it seemed like he had a reasonable chance of winning, at least until the “hands” ad appeared and Senator Helms was re-elected (I also lived in Chapel Hill then, so I may have been overly optimistic).

That fall, the Republican Party lost me forever, because of that despicable ad. That ad encapsulates what I have mostly HEARD* from most Republican candidates since then: appeals to my fears. And I am a hopeful person.

On election night 2008, even after President Obama was declared the victor, I was desperately nervous to see if he had won the state of North Carolina, which he did by 14,000 votes (out of over 4.3 Million cast). I wept that night when it became clear that he had won North Carolina, because it put the politics that made Senator Helms’ hands ad so potent a bit further in the rear view mirror of my great state.

As a 44 year old man who grew up in the rural South, I am still sometimes struck when I see President Obama and re-remember that we have a black President. However, my children who are 12, 15 and 17 think nothing of it, and for that I am glad. That is what progress looks like, and the election of President Obama greatly advanced our country in this intangible way.

*it may not be what they meant to say, but it is what I have heard.

cross posted at freeforall

Author: Don Taylor

Don Taylor is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, where his teaching and research focuses on health policy, with a focus on Medicare generally, and on hospice and palliative care, specifically. He increasingly works at the intersection of health policy and the federal budget. Past research topics have included health workforce and the economics of smoking. He began blogging in June 2009 and wrote columns on health reform for the Raleigh, (N.C.) News and Observer. He blogged at The Incidental Economist from March 2011 to March 2012. He is the author of a book, Balancing the Budget is a Progressive Priority that will be published by Springer in May 2012.

9 thoughts on “Why I take the N.C. election personally”

  1. Helms won so repeatedly in N.C. by never letting slip to the average, decent voter in this state what he really stood for. There’s a lot of good history written about his strategy; I don’t recall the names or authors at present, sorry.

    1. Sen Helms was also a very effective advocate for N.C. financial interests via the Tobacco price support program and he was also known for excellent constituent service…these were things that helped him even with some voters who likely didn’t find some of his tactics very seemly.If you watch CNN election coverage, one of the commentators, Alex Castellanos, is the guy who made that ad http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2009/12/04/72291/castellanos-hands-admit/

      1. That’s right, too; thanks for the reminder.

        Having such courtly manners also went a long way for the old sinner. I guess you could call it the, ah, whited sepulchre effect.

  2. Excellent piece, Don! As a Georgia native I have had to endure my share of razzing about our politics, for good and sufficient reason. But not from North Carolinians, not after I point out that benighted as we can be, North Carolina RE-elected Jesse Helms FOUR times. That’s a record we cannot approach (Newton LeRoy Gingrich was never elected statewide). Sorry, Betsy, but Helms showed his true colors against Harvey Gantt in the 1990 campaign in desperation to win a relatively close election, and then was reelected in 1996 when there could be no doubt about him. Not that there ever had been, really, going back to his time on Raleigh television. What was it he called UNC back then, the “University of Negroes and Communists”? Who are these “average, decent” voters who couldn’t see through this? Plenty average, just as in Georgia, but completely indecent.

    Note: I stand corrected about my comment a couple of weeks ago about the main proprietor of the RBC voting for Obama in California. A vote in Virginia really counts this year. Bravo, good sir!

    1. Yes, the 1996 rematch between Sen. Helms and Mayor Gantt was not as close. In 1984 Sen Helms barely beat Jim Hunt, who was a very popular two term Governor, and at that point was the most expensive congressional race ever. Gov Hunt was elected twice more as Gov in 1992 and 1996.

    2. My point stands, but I’ll have to abandon further argument as I m prepring to stand in the cold for a full day of polling tomorrow as a voter protection observer in a heavily minority precinct. Feel free to whack it here withthe other totebaggers and academicians all you like.

    3. My point stands, but I’ll have to abandon further argument as I m prepring to stand in the cold for a full day of polling tomorrow as a voter protection observer in a heavily minority precinct. Feel free to whack it here withthe other totebaggers and academicians all you like.

  3. thanks Don. I voted for Reagan on my first vote and have bitterly regretted it ever since. 🙁

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