Jesse Helms Cuts Ties to Fund-Raising Club

Article excerpt

For more than 20 years, Sen. Jesse Helms and "The Club" - whether known as the Congressional Club, the National Congressional Club or the current Conservative Club - were inseparable. But no more.

Formed in 1973 to retire Helms' debts after his first campaign for the Senate, the club became a national network for raising millions of dollars from conservatives. And it ran the North Carolina re-election campaigns that sent Helms back to Washington for three more terms.

But not next year, when the 73-year-old Republican seeks a fifth term. In a bitter, public split with his old friends, Helms says he will run on his own.

"It may be a total political mistake," Helms said in an interview. "We'll see. I hope it isn't."

Two Democrats already have indicated they want to challenge Helms, whose past races have been fierce contests decided by narrow margins. Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who lost to Helms in 1990, has started building a new campaign. So has Charles Sanders, who stepped down as president of the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo earlier this year.

Helms has made his mark in the Senate by taking confrontational stands, such as opposing continued financing for AIDS research, assailing federal dollars for the arts, pushing for tightened foreign aid and working to increase pressure on Cuba.

The club's fund-raising efforts on Helms' behalf involved regular appeals to a national network of supporters, almost always involving some crisis that Helms and the conservative cause were said to be facing. Helms said he got tired of it.

"I just got to the point where I was embarrassed to be in front of my friends," he said. "I had a lady tell me, `Thank you. I used to get about two letters a week from you asking me for money for some crisis. Now I get a letter every couple of months,' " Helms said. "I told her that's the way I wanted it to be."

Tom Ellis, a founder of the club and Helms' longtime political strategist, said he holds no ill will for his old friend.

"I wish him well. …