Fact Friday 267 - Gantt vs. Helms

Fact Friday 267 - Gantt vs. Helms

Happy Friday!

#VoteCLT - Make your voice heard!


Harvey Gantt

Jesse Helms

It wouldn’t be an election without political ads! But let's rewind the clock to one of the state's most contentious set of battles in its election history. 

The North Carolina United States Senate election of 1990 was held on November 6, 1990 as part of the nationwide elections to the Senate. The general election was fought between the Republican incumbent, Jesse Helms and the Democratic nominee, Mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt. Helms won re-election to a fourth term by a slightly wider margin than the close election against Jim Hunt in 1984. Many case studies would be done on this 1990 race between Helms and Gantt, rewriting the book on political strategy.

Helms drew controversy for airing what became known as the "Hands" (also known as "white hands") ad produced by Alex Castellanos. The advertisement shows the hands of a white man in a plaid shirt reading and then crumpling up a job rejection letter, while a voiceover says "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?" The advertisement compared Helms to Gantt by saying that Gantt was "for racial quotas" while Helms was against them. In particular, it accused Gantt of supporting "Ted Kennedy's racial quota law." The ad prompted allegations of racism, though Castellanos would later deny any racial intent. 

Helms was several points behind Gantt in polls taken shortly before the election. Over a weekend, Castellanos wrote and produced "Hands." Gantt's support of affirmative action had been identified on surveys as an unpopular position. Helms made up the difference in the polls and won re-election. 

"It dealt with people's worst fears," Gantt said years later. "We couldn't believe that someone in 1990 would run an ad like that." But the ad's creators have denied any racist intent. "The message in that spot's very clear," political consultant Alex Castellanos told PBS. "And that is nobody should get a job, or be denied a job because of the color of their skin. The vast majority of Americans believe that."

Racist or not, even Gantt acknowledged that "Hands" was, in its way, a work of "political genius." According to the Almanac of American Politics, Helms trailed in the polls for much of the campaign until, "armed with money raised by a nationwide direct mail campaign," he "seized the initiative in mid-October with three ads" -- "Hands" and two others that also referenced race -- and won in November with 53 percent of the vote (1,080,208 votes) to Gantt's 47 percent (974,701 votes). The direct mail campaign was also hugely controversial, and according to the Justice Department, was intended to intimidate black voters. The Helms campaign denied these allegations but a consent decree in the matter. 

The Justice Department lawsuit charged that the postcards were sent to 125,000 voters (44,000 postcards were sent to black voters and an additional 81,000 were sent to voters in 86 predominately black precincts). It charged that postcards falsely told eligible voters they were not eligible to vote and warned that if they went to the polls they could be prosecuted for voter fraud. The complaint said an investigation determined that black voters were targeted to receive 97 percent of the postcards.

The election received renewed attention this year with the release of ESPN miniseries, The Last Dance, which centered on Chicago Bulls superstar and now owner of the NBA Charlotte Hornets franchise, Michael Jordan refusing to endorse Gantt, who was seeking to become the first African-American to represent North Carolina - Michael Jordan's home state - in the United States Senate since Reconstruction.

Gantt lost to Helms again in 1996 by the same margin as 1990, but he remained a major player in North Carolina politics and philanthropy. 

To view more from the Harvey Gantt Papers, which documents his 1996 campaign against Helms, visit the UNC Charlotte Goldmine at bit.ly/gantt2.

Until next week!


Email me at chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

Information taken from: 

UNCC Special Collections on Instagram | @unccspeccoll

The Atlantic, "The Tar Heel Top 5: North Carolina's Most Notable Campaigns," by Hampton Dellinger, September 3, 2012.

Wikipedia, "1990 United States Senate election in North Carolina."

Wikipedia, "Hands (advertisement)." 

PBS Online - 30 second candidate - 1990.

Web Archive - "Ad Spotlight Classic: Jesse Helms, 1990," by Deron Leee, July 8, 2008.

Associated Press - "Helms' Campaign Denies It Tried to Intimidate Black Voters," February 27, 1992.

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass

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