Helms remembered as friend, mentor
Posted July 5, 2008 4:30 p.m. EDT
Updated July 6, 2008 4:38 p.m. EDT
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Throughout his 30-year career in the U.S. Senate, Jesse Helms earned the nickname “Senator No” from political foes.
Former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey remembers Helms as a friend and “mentor.”
Helms, 86, died at 1:15 a.m. Friday in Raleigh. His cause of death was not released.
“He inspired me and inspired so many people,” Cobey said.
Helms served five terms in the U.S. Senate, retiring in 2003 because of his faltering health. During his 30 years in Capitol Hill, the North Carolina Republican became a powerful voice for a conservative movement that was growing both in Congress and across the country, and he used his position to speak out against issues like gay rights, federal funding for the arts and U.S. foreign aid.
Cobey, a former state GOP party chair, said he first met Helms in 1976 at a Chapel Hill fundraiser.
“I went out there to have breakfast and hear him in person and that’s where the relationship between the two of us started,” Cobey said.
Four years later, Cobey ran for Lieutenant Governor and joined Helms on the campaign trail during a time when the state's Republican Party was struggling.
“Registration was very low. I told people there was plenty of room at the front pew – the front row of the party. I mean, they were just desperate to have anybody who was involved,” Cobey said.
Though Cobey lost his bid for the position, Helms’ grassroots efforts paid off when Ronald Reagan won North Carolina and the presidency.
“He came along at the right time because he motivated so many people to become registered as Republicans – become Republican activists,” Cobey said.
In 1984, Cobey won a U.S. House seat.
State Sen. Harris Blake, who had just unsuccessfully run for Congress, said his campaign connected him to the man he admired as commentator on WRAL.
“Through Sen. Helms my whole political world was set based on what his philosophy was and the fact he could get so much done,” said Blake, R-Moore County.
Cobey ran for governor in 2004 with Helms’ endorsement, but did not survive the primary election. He said he never saw Helms’ support as a liability, although Helms would joke about it.
“One of the things he said to me a couple of times, he said, ‘I’ll be for you or against you, whatever will help you the most,’” Cobey said laughing.
Cobey currently serves as the board chairman of the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate University.
“The one thing about Sen. Helms he was always himself. I learned it was very important to me to try to be myself too,” Cobey said.