Trouble in Jesse Helms Country

By Guillory, Ferrel | The Nation, May 3, 1986 | Go to article overview

Trouble in Jesse Helms Country


Guillory, Ferrel, The Nation


Trouble in Jesse Helms Country

Meet Coy Privette. Baptist minister, Republican state legislator, executive director of the Chistian Action League, he would seem to be Senator Jesse Helms's kind of guy. Indeed, in 1984 Privette stirred up a furor in Baptist circles by giving the Helms re-election campaign access to a mailing list of church leaders.

In this year's race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, however, he hasn't fallen in line with the Helms political organization. His defection symbolizes the current split in the state G.O.P., a rift which could translate into a major setback for Helms in the May 6 primary. Instead of backing Helms's candidate, David Funderburk, Privette, a smiling, loquacious preacher from the cotton-mill town of Kannapolis, supports the candidacy of U.S. Representative James Broyhill, a twenty-three-year veteran of the House.

Senator John East, who suffers from a thyroid disorder, is not seeking a second term. In an effort to maintain its hold on North Carolina's second Senate seat, the National Congressional Club, the hub of the Helms organization, recruited Funderburk and is managing his campaign.

Funderburk is a 41-year-old professor of government and head of the social sciences department at Campbell University, a small Baptist institution in Buies Creek, thirty miles south of Raleigh. In 1978 he wrote a book titled If the Blind Lead the Blind: The Scandal Regarding the Mis-teaching of Communism in American Universities. Sponsored by Helms, Funderburk was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Rumania in 1981. After three and a half years at the post he resigned, blasting the State Department for downplaying human rights violations and for not standing up to the government in Bucharest.

Broyhill, 58, is a member of a furniture-making family well-known in the state and the closest thing North Carolina has to a Mr. Republican. A low-key, methodical legislator, he is the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Broyhill-Funderburk contest is the latest struggle between the two main factions of the state Republican Party. In journalistic shorthand, the state G.O.P. is usually described as being split between moderates and conservatives. In fact, the cleavage is between the conservatives and the ultraconservatives. Broyhill, along with Governor James G. Martin, represents the South's old-line Republican Party. It is a pragmatic, fiscally conservative Republicanism, with its base in the Appalachians and in the suburbs of Sun Belt cities. In contrast, Helms, East and the Congressional Club represent the Republican right wing, mixed in with switchovers from the Democratic Party and politicized Christian fundamentalists.

With a solid following among Republican regulars, Broyhill appears well positioned to win the May 6 primary. Helms has declared himself neutral in the race, but the Funderburk campaign is clearly controlled by his organization. Therefore, a Broyhill victory would signal a diminution of Helms's power in the state G.O.P.

Republicans have won the past three Senate elections in North Carolina, a state once dominated by the Democratic Party and long noted for its progressive leadership in the South. Following Helms's defeat of Governor James B. Hunt Jr. in the fierce 1984 Senate race, state Demorcrats began a process of party renewal. After drifting for several months without a candidate to rally around, the party establishment encouraged Terry Sanford, former governor and former president of Duke University, to run. The fact that the Democrats turned to the 68-year-old Sanford suggests to Thad Beyle, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that the party has a "generation gap' in its leadership. "Where is that group between 40 and 60?' Beyle asks.

Nine other candidates have entered the Democratic primary, most of them political unknowns. …

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