Despite sharing the same initials and middle name "Alexander," Jesse Helms and Joe Herzenberg were very different. Helms was a bigoted, heterosexual, Southern Baptist, extreme right wing Republican who used divisive politics to keep himself in power for five U.S. Senate terms. Herzenberg was a tolerant, gay, Jewish, staunchly liberal Democrat who spent his life standing up for progressive ideals.
Jesse Helms and Joe Herzenberg
Yet they were both historic politicians who bookended the Old and New South. Helms, who died last summer at age 86, was the last unapologetically racist politician of the segregation era. Herzenberg, who passed away one year ago today at age 66, was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council two decades ago as the first openly gay elected official in the former Confederacy. And in 1984, their paths memorably crossed during the epic Helms-Hunt U.S. Senate race.
That year, Helms used shameful hate mongering against Herzenberg, his partner Lightning Brown, and the rest of North Carolina's gay and lesbian community to eke out his narrow re-election against sitting Gov. Jim Hunt. Helms had been getting decreasing mileage out of race-baiting, drawing heavy criticism for his filibuster against the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday a year earlier. So he found a new bogeyman - the homosexual menace.
GOP operatives like Lee Atwater whose names are synonymous with slimy politics cut their teeth working on Helms' campaigns. During the '84 race, one of the top Helms aides responsible for implementing this gay-bashing strategy was Atwater's mentor, Charlie Black. Black was neck deep in the planning behind every one of Helms' infamously racist and divisive election bids. He went on to a long lobbying career representing disgraced foreign dictators like the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos and Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire. Black currently serves as a senior advisor to John McCain's presidential campaign, and the results of his most recent handiwork have become evident as the McCain-Palin message has swerved disgustingly into the gutter.
McCain and Black confer aboard McCain's campaign plane
Headlines screaming "Jim Hunt Is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate," and asking, "Is Jim Hunt homosexual?...Is he AC and DC?" appeared throughout 1984 in a free newspaper called The Landmark, a virulently anti-gay publication printed in Chatham County, N.C. The paper's homophobic publisher, Bob Windsor of Chapel Hill, was a cog in the Helms machine.
The stories ran alongside paid ads for Helms' re-election campaign, and hundreds of thousands of copies of the paper were distributed around the state, particularly in rural areas. Its press run increased dramatically in the weeks leading up to Election Day. The Landmark was funded by shadowy national Helms backers, part of the religious right that played a key behind-the-scenes organizing role in Helms' campaign.
That June, the N.C. Republican Party held a press conference to accuse Jim Hunt of a "gay connection" because gay donors had bought 100 of 700 tickets to a Hunt fundraiser in New York, and Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, leading Senate sponsor of a gay rights bill, had held a fundraising dinner for Hunt in Boston. The next day, Helms supporters paid to have a Landmark story reprinted as a large ad in the Raleigh News & Observer, accusing Hunt of "accepting a $79,000 contribution from Gay Activists."
Posing as reporters for the black and gay press, right-wing operatives made and taped phone calls to gay Hunt supporters around the country. Articles based on distorted excerpts from the phone calls were then published in issues of The Landmark.
Herzenberg and Brown were the smear campaign's N.C. poster children, targeted because they had helped co-found the Lesbian and Gay Democrats of North Carolina two years earlier, and were both vocally campaigning for Hunt. According to Lightning, one caller "asked about my fund raising for Hunt. The details ended up in The Landmark right away - it was frightening."
Besides running made-up stories that slandered Herzenberg and Brown relentlessly, including accusations that they had started a Chapel Hill NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) chapter and were secretly "porno kings," The Landmark also published their home addresses and did everything possible to incite violence against the two of them. No wonder, as gay activist Mab Segrest recounted in an article on the Senate race, that "Brown and Herzenberg were subjected to more than a dozen separate incidents of intimidation, vandalism and harassment...for their work within the Democratic Party."
In a 1984 interview with the Independent Weekly when Herzenberg and Brown were awarded two of the Indy's first-ever Citizen Awards, Brown told of how "two people even threatened to kill me on Rosemary Street" in Chapel Hill. Herzenberg called the attacks "very disruptive and at times painful." Asked if he had been scared, he admitted, with a subtlety that testified to his courage, "At moments."
In September, The Landmark published an interview with Helms in which he called homosexuality "a perversion and a crime." He described the gay movement as a "threat to the morals of our young people" and to "the ability of our population to reproduce itself...jeopardizing the very survival of the nation."
Helms was eventually forced to publicly distance himself from The Landmark after the paper published its most sensational charges accusing Jim Hunt of having a lover who was a "pretty young boy."" But he was well aware of how the paper was being widely distributed on his behalf. Helms betrayed himself on this point during a televised debate.
Although both were known in Triangle political circles, and in the state's gay community, the only actual media coverage of their status as gay activists was through The Landmark's smear campaign. But in one of their four debates, Helms twice gay-baited Hunt by thundering, "You're supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown!" Herzenberg considered the moment he was publicly outed to have been when Helms announced his name on statewide television.
In the wake of his sliming by Helms' hateful tactics, Herzenberg decided he was out of the closet for good. His political activism and organizing flourished. He was elected as an openly gay Mondale delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. He helped organize North Carolina's first Gay Pride Parade in 1986. He ran for the Chapel Hill Town Council as an openly gay candidate in 1985, and again in 1987 before he was finally elected.
Herzenberg was arguably the first gay candidate in U.S. history elected to office outside an urban area or historically gay enclave, and he did it by assembling a broad-based progressive coalition. His election was an important symbol of how the South was changing, and in some ways, Jesse Helms and his repugnant minions like Charlie Black made it possible. Joe Herzenberg would have been thrilled to see the political landscape one year after his death, only one week away from the election of Barack Obama and a historic repudiation of the politics of division and hate.