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WENTWORTH, N.C. (WGHP) – Democrats want to make Rep. Ted Budd look bad for having participated in the annual Reagan-Helms Dinner in Rockingham County last weekend.

Budd, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, was the guest speaker at the event, just as Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson was a year ago.

Ronald Reagan chats with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C..), a leading conservative senator, in the 1970s. (GETTY IMAGES)

But that’s to be expected: Candidates speaking to their constituents during campaign season is a constant. Budd’s putting on a good suit and going to the Rockingham Middle School to speak to a few hundred Republicans – you must be registered with the GOP to attend – is not a surprise.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Director Bobbie Richardson, the first African American to hold that position, called a video news conference to express outrage that anyone would attend an event bearing the name of Jesse Helms, who served three decades as a Republican senator for North Carolina.

“It’s incumbent on our leaders, especially politicians seeking to represent North Carolina to work equality and justice for all our citizens, not just a select few,” Richardson said.

But rather than question Budd, maybe a broader point might be: Why is there a dinner honoring Jesse Helms (and former President Ronald Reagan)? And why is it in Rockingham County (where roughly 39% of more than 61,000 registered voters are Republican)?

“It was called Reagan Helms long before I got involved,” Rockingham County GOP Chair Diane Parnell said in response to emailed questions from WGHP. “Many years ago, the late attorney, Thomas Harrington, was the chairman of the GOP Party.

“I am not sure if he began the annual dinners and named it thus considering Senator Helms was a friend and a frequent visitor to Rockingham County. I have been active in the Republican Party for 10 years, and I believe those Dinners were ongoing 10 years prior to that. …I am just not sure.”

Here’s a little history lesson on Helms and why an event bearing his name is controversial and why some might question why it remains in a day when so many names of those who opposed equal rights are being removed from public celebration:

A native of Monroe, Helms died in 2008, but his legacy as one of the Southern conservatives who fought against the implementation of the Civil Rights Act is vivid to natives such as Richardson.

She called him a “segregationist” whose “career was marked by racism and bigotry. Jesse Helms established himself as a seminal leader of the segregationist movement.”

Sen. Jesse Helms (standing left) gets a response from President Reagan during the President’s meeting with Republican congressional leaders. (GETTY)

She also talked about growing up in Franklin County and attending a segregated high school (Paris High School) but her siblings who followed in the “integrated schools” remained separated in many ways.

Helms had gained stature as a personality and commentator at WRAL Radio in Raleigh in the 1960s, using a commentary to express his political views – many against desegregation and the civil rights voting act – as a Southern Democrat.

But unlike many of his Democratic peers who ruled the South during a time of transition in America – such so-called “Dixiecrats” as Jim Eastland, George Wallace, Ross Barnett, Lester Maddox and Strom Thurmond – Helms changed to Republican in 1970. In 1972 he was elected to the Senate, and he spent the next 30 years being perhaps one of the most conservative senators of his time.

Helms led the filibuster to block the establishment of Martin Luther King Day. He was against abortion and homosexuality, even opposing funding for AIDS research in the U.S. But his support for Reagan has been suggested to have helped find the footing in the South to win the presidency in 1980.

‘A powerful influence’

Michael Bitzer

“Certainly Jesse Helms had a powerful influence on building the modern North Carolina Republican Party since his entry into politics dating back to the 1950s and especially with his election in 1972 as US Senator and his subsequent five terms,” Michael Bitzer, a political science professor and elections blogger from Catawba College, said in an email. “And the fact that he hasn’t been in the news since his retirement in 2002 and his death in 2008, influential figures of political parties garner that kind of lasting legacy by having events named for him, such as the dinner in conjunction with Ronald Reagan.

“With his opposition to things like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its extensions, and even the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, the racial politics of Helms is well documented in this state’s history, probably epitomized with the ‘white hands ad’ that he ran in his contest with Harvey Gantt. He was a staunch leader of social conservatism, including his opposition to homosexuality as well, and his legacy continues on in the strong attachment of social conservatism with the NC GOP.”

Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper, an elections expert and government instructor from Western Carolina University – and one of Bitzer’s partners in the Old North State Politics newsletter – had a similar view.

“He may be polarizing, but there’s no one more associated with the NC Republican Party than former Senator Helms,” Cooper said. “For that reason, it’s certainly not a surprise that the GOP would have a fundraiser bearing his name. The only shock would be if they scrubbed his name from the event.

“The people who are turned off by the Helms name and likeness aren’t the state’s few undecided voters, nor are they Republican donors. They are people who were almost certain to vote for Democrats up and down the ballot.”

Not on the ballot

Parnell declined to identify any other candidates who attended the dinner. “I know that the Democratic Party is attempting to use the name Helms to smear the good name of Ted Budd and Senator Jesse Helms,” she said.

She said Budd was a “compelling speaker,” and Budd posted snapshots of the event on his social media accounts and praised the event.

“As to Rockingham County’s GOP hosting such an event, I think anyone can lay claim to that named event in the state and have their dinner,” Bitzer said. “Doesn’t really raise an issue in my mind at all.

“So, I think in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another tactic to raise awareness and make the connection to Budd, but in this day and age, when many North Carolinians, especially new residents since 2008, might ask ‘who is Jesse Helms?’, it’s party politics at play to score an attack against the opponent.”

Richardson’s comments sought to keep the focus on Budd and to support Democrat Cheri Beasley and to make the connection to Helms one that could be grasped by voters.

Said Cooper: “There are people not on the ballot this year who will be important symbols in the 2022 election – Joe Biden and Donald Trump tops among them. Jesse Helms will not be one of those people.”