In the fall of 1983, Jesse Helms needed something like political salvation. The veteran Dixie senator faced an uphill reelection campaign against Jim Hunt, the popular two-term Democratic governor. Hunt, framing the '84 election as an opportunity for the state to solidify its identity as a tolerant outpost in the South, was outperforming Helms in the polls. By October, the conservative firebrand was trailing Hunt by twenty percentage points.
Then Helms made a consequential decision. When a bill to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday easily cleared the House, Helms launched a filibuster against the proposal in the Senate, accusing the slain civil rights icon of embracing "action-oriented Marxism."
The senator's colleagues were wary of his crusade; even Strom Thurmond voted for the bill. But Helms was astute enough to recognize that the voters he was courting did not care about the limits of acceptable Capitol Hill discourse.
As The New York Times explained, "Mr. Helms said his opposition to the King holiday would not hurt him politically in North Carolina, because, 'I'm not going to get any black votes, period.' A Republican political strategist added that in Senator Helms's campaign, 'the groups he is playing to' would probably applaud his stand."
- Photo by Jenny Warburg
- Jesse Helms
Helms's instinct was spot-on. He knew that his filibuster wouldn't go anywhere. Even President Ronald Reagan had signaled his intent to sign off on the holiday. But it was the excessive pageantry—the barrage of headlines pitting Helms against communists and liberal softies—that galvanized white voters.
By December, polls showed Hunt's lead over Helms had been cut in half. Helms then kicked off a campaign that exploited racial tensions, stoking fears over black voter registration and publishing campaign literature with headlines such as "Black Voter Registration Rises Sharply" and "Hunt Urges More Minority Registration," alongside photos of Hunt with Jesse Jackson.
On the eve of the election, Helms "accused Hunt of being supported by 'homosexuals, the labor-union bosses and the crooks' and said he feared a large 'bloc vote,'" The Washington Post reported. Asked what he meant, Helms responded candidly, "The black vote."
The strategy earned dividends. Though Helms may have lost in Washington's court of opinion, he won in North Carolina—52 percent to 48 percent. The lesson? Never underestimate the dog whistle.
It's been more than three decades since Helms's come-from-behind win over Hunt, and nearly ten years since Helms died. But an examination of the traces he left makes plain what critics call his core identity: a politician who had few scruples about inflaming racial resentment for his own political gain.
And it's precisely within that context that we should focus on Donald Trump's pick for the Eastern District Court of North Carolina: Thomas Farr, a Raleigh attorney who could soon wind up ruling on issues of grave importance to the African-American community. Farr served as the legal counsel on Helms's 1984 and 1990 Senate campaigns, both of which sought to suppress the African-American vote through intimidating postcard mailing campaigns.
More recently, Farr defended the General Assembly's voter ID law, which the Fourth Circuit Court determined targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision." He also defended the legislature's 2011 legislative districts, which had to be redrawn after a lower court struck down twenty-eight of them as illegal racial gerrymanders. And throughout his career, he's aligned himself with North Carolina politicians whose policies have taken aim at communities of color.
As the Reverend William J. Barber, the former head of the state NAACP, pointedly put it in a New York Times op-ed December 26, Farr is "a product of the modern white supremacist machine that Mr. Helms pioneered."
When Donald Trump took the oath of office, he inherited an exceptionally high number of judicial vacancies—thanks, in no small part, to the Senate's blockade of President Obama's nominations in the final year of his presidency. Trump was given the rare opportunity to remake the judiciary in the Republican mold; to date, he's selected the least diverse judicial pool in decades.
Among Trump's picks is Farr, whose nomination—which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote in October—is on hold until the Senate reconvenes this month. Because of his work for Helms and his defense of the legislature's voter suppression efforts, Farr remains one of Trump's most controversial choices.
The criticisms extend beyond ideology. The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were well aware of civil rights advocates' concerns and voted for Farr anyway.
Instead, the key issue now, and the one that could imperil Farr's lifetime appointment, is whether Farr has misled senators about his work with Helms. Civil rights groups and Democratic politicians are demanding that Farr return to the Judiciary Committee to answer questions—first raised by the INDY in November—about a controversial 1990 mailing by the Helms campaign, consisting of more than one hundred thousand postcards that a federal court determined were intended to suppress voting by African Americans.
In a written response to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Farr said that he did not know about the mailing until after the postcards went out and the Department of Justice intervened. But a former Department of Justice civil rights attorney who worked on the case, Gerald Hebert, has disputed Farr's version of events, telling the INDY that Farr "absolutely" was in a meeting at which "ballot security"—i.e., the postcard initiative—was discussed [see sidebar, page 14].
In light of the INDY's reporting, Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, has asked the Justice Department to provide an internal document known as a "J-memo" that could clarify Farr's role in the postcard campaign. As of publication, the details of the memo have not been made public.
Because Farr's nomination didn't make it to the Senate floor in 2017, the chamber effectively punted it back to the White House. If he chooses, Trump can again nominate Farr—the president has been mum on the subject—and Farr could potentially have a second, and presumably more contentious, hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
When Jesse Helms first won election to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his face and voice had been familiar to North Carolinians for more than twenty years, as a political advocate, journalist, and television editorialist. His rhetoric often served to drive a wedge between white and black people. Throughout his three decades in public service, Helms continued to express these same sorts of racial attitudes. He also built a powerful political and financial empire, with bright young men like Farr to keep it running.
Helms's attitudes—expressed with the thinnest disguise, or no disguise—unleashed strains of racism that many Southerners thought had been quelled by the passage of the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Under those laws, black people could exercise the same right to vote and eat at the same restaurants as white people. Didn't that mean that we were all going to live together in respect and peace?
Into that crystalline vision came Helms, with a history of making clear that, while he might hire and tolerate individual African Americans, he largely viewed the black community with contempt.
In 2001, The New York Times collected some of the head-turning comments that Helms made about people of color and gays and lesbians. One example, from 1963: "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and commerce and interfere with other men's rights." In 1993, after black Democratic senator Carol Moseley Braun debated Helms over the Confederate flag on the Senate floor, Helms joined her in the elevator, started singing "Dixie," and told another senator, "I'm going to keep singing 'Dixie' until she cries."
Responding to Booker in December, Farr said that he only represented Helms because he joined a law firm that already did Helms's work, not because he believed in Helms's racial views: "I am completely opposed to using race to divide people. I have never done anything in my life to use race to divide people." (Helms stoutly resisted the racist label, referring often to the many home-state African Americans with whom he had good relationships.)
A partner at Farr's firm was key Helms aide Tom Ellis, who introduced Farr to a political machine that was already cranking hard. Ellis had been scrutinized for serving in the 1970s as an official of the Pioneer Fund, a group that funded research designed to prove that blacks were inferior to whites. In July 1983, the year Farr joined the firm, Ellis's nomination for a seat on the Board for International Broadcasting was scrutinized by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over his past racist remarks and actions, ultimately derailing his nomination.
Ellis's rejection didn't stop Helms or the Congressional Club, a fundraising arm of the campaign that took in millions for the 1984 race. It's possible to trace the Citizens United-emboldened money raisers back to the Helms organization, which used a for-profit arm to "lend" money to favored politicians that several never paid back.
While they don't often boast about it these days, some of the Republican Party's most skilled operatives worked during the eighties and nineties for Helms. The storied "white hands" ad, portraying a white worker who lost his job to a minority applicant because of quotas, was the work of Alex Castellanos, who went on to work for Republicans like Senator John McCain and to become a familiar voice on CNN. Top-level GOP politicos Dick Morris, Charlie Black, and Marc and Karen Rotterman were also on the Helms team, according to accounts in the Weekly Standard and the National Journal's Hotline.
Carter Wrenn, a longtime Helms hand and a staunch Farr ally, has conceded that the "white hands" ad—which helped Helms defeat Harvey Gantt, the African-American former Charlotte mayor—was racist, telling NPR in 2012 that it "was absolutely a racial ad. That was the race card. ... I've been in the room when we played racist politics. ... We played the race card and I'm not proud of it."
When Helms announced his retirement from the Senate in 2001, the think pieces came far and wide. The Washington Post's David S. Broder called on the press to ditch superlatives about the senator's "conservative firebrand" politics, and instead call him what he really was: "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country—a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired."
Instead, Helms's policies seem poised for a Trump-era revival. And Farr presents a direct link to the man who filibustered the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, supported the South African apartheid regime, introduced legislation to end affirmative action programs, and launched two consecutive Senate campaigns that made use of "ballot security" voter suppression initiatives. More recently, Farr has twice defended—unsuccessfully—the General Assembly's legislative districts and voter ID law, two initiatives widely acknowledged as targeting black voters.
Farr has always denied having a racially based agenda, and he's never exhibited the sort of racially explicit, lip-curling jeer that decades of North Carolinians heard from Helms.
But Farr's legacy could be equally consequential. He could soon be named a judge for life. The forty-four-acre area the Eastern District Court of North Carolina encompasses includes the seven counties with the state's highest concentration of African Americans—Bertie, Hertford, Northampton, Edgecombe, Halifax, Warren, and Vance. And yet, in spite of the demographics, the district has never had a black federal judge—primarily because Senator Richard Burr blocked two African-American women whom President Obama nominated for that seat.
In the end, a judge with Farr's record would be ideally placed to reinforce the kinds of policies and laws put in place by his former clients in the General Assembly. More than that, though, his full-throated endorsement by Burr, Senator Thom Tillis, and other prominent Republicans is an active embrace of Helms's divisive legacy in the age of the no-less-divisive Donald Trump.
Helms's legacy is not to be sanitized. Nor should it be forgotten. Indeed, it's never really left.
- Image courtesy of C-SPAN
- Thomas Farr
Thomas Farr's involvement in Senator Jesse Helms's "ballot security" program lasted longer and ran deeper than was previously recognized, according to federal filings, contemporary coverage, and recent interviews.
Today, the Raleigh attorney faces accusations that he knew more about the ballot security effort on behalf of the 1990 Helms campaign—specifically, a postcard campaign that sought to intimidate black voters—than he made clear when answering written questions from Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee will have the responsibility of once again voting up or down on Farr's nomination—after approving it in October—if President Donald Trump decides again to nominate Farr for the federal district court in eastern North Carolina.
A look at his record shows that if Farr didn't realize the implications of the Helms campaign's initiative in 1990, he was ignoring a history of ballot security efforts that he himself had practiced and that were widely known in GOP circles well before then.
For example, in 1981, returned GOP mailings to black and Hispanic voters in New Jersey were used to challenge their ballots. That brought about a federal lawsuit filed by the Democratic Party against the Republican National Committee, which was settled with a GOP promise not to use voter intimidation tactics. Farr was not involved in the New Jersey effort, but it seems almost certain he would have been aware of it as a young Republican lawyer.
According to Farr's own account—as well as that of Gerald Hebert, a Department of Justice attorney for twenty-one years—Farr oversaw a ballot security effort in Helms's 1984 campaign against Governor Jim Hunt. That effort reportedly used a similar scheme to, as the Hunt campaign alleged to The Philadelphia Inquirer, "blunt the black turnout."
As the Inquirer reported, "A bulk-rate mailing of Helms campaign postcards was addressed to registered Democrats. The cards, which cost 11 cents to mail, carried a notation to the postal service requesting that they be returned rather than forwarded. Paying 25 cents a card for each card returned, the Helms campaign is believed to have compiled a list of voters open to challenge at the polling places because they may no longer live at their registered address."
In Farr's response to a letter from Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey—who is not on the Judiciary Committee—seeking more information about his work for Helms, Farr wrote, "There were no complaints about the legality of the 1984 mailings."
It's far from clear that no one objected. In fact, the next year, the General Assembly passed a law prohibiting same-day electoral challenges based on returned mail.
In his letter to Farr, Booker asked whether Farr—as was stated in a 1992 civil rights complaint filed by the Justice Department in response to the 1990 postcard initiative—was the attorney involved in the campaign's "ballot security" efforts.
"I do not know, but several weeks before the election, I participated in a short meeting with persons who wanted to be hired to do a ballot security program for the Helms committee in 1990," Farr replied. "During that meeting, I told them there was no reason to do a card mailing in 1990 because North Carolina law had been changed and returned cards could not be used to challenge voters."
Farr has said he had no advance knowledge of the contents of postcards sent to more than one hundred thousand North Carolina voters, many of them black. The cards, according to the 1992 complaint, were designed to intimidate and discourage black voters in the U.S. Senate race between Helms and former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt.
But by Farr's own account, he didn't try to dissuade those in that meeting from sending out the mailing. Indeed, he offered advice about how the cards might still be used.
"I told them they might attempt to use returned cards in a recount," he wrote to Booker. "However, at the time of this meeting I was doubtful of the utility of any card mailing, even in a recount, because of the change in North Carolina law."
Farr, legal counsel to the campaign, walked away at that point, leaving the mailing in the hands of Ed Locke, a political operative who had worked on the 1984 campaign, according to Farr's statement and a consent decree signed in 1992. (Efforts to reach Locke were unsuccessful.)
Longtime Helms aide Carter Wrenn told the INDY in November that he was at fault for sending out the postcards—which falsely informed voters who had moved that they were ineligible—without reading it.
In this scenario, Farr and Wrenn, both seasoned politicos who'd worked for Helms for years, made no effort to stop or even examine a racially targeted mailing that someone—presumably Locke—had designed to give Helms a leg up in a tight race.
Under the 1992 consent decree, which Farr signed for the campaign, the Helms crew admitted no wrongdoing but were barred from practicing certain techniques while assuring ballot security. The campaign and its associates were also prohibited from any program designed "to intimidate, threaten, coerce, deter, or otherwise interfere with a qualified voter's exercise of the franchise."