Staffers learned of the senator's decision at 6 p.m. Wednesday night, with no advance notice, even during a conference call earlier in the day. After the announcement, staffers escorted a visitor through the offices and reflected on Helms.
The first thing that one notices about Helms' offices is the amount of space.
"He occupies roughly half of this floor, with his personal staff and his Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. This whole area belongs to him," said a staffer.
Most of the space has a typical office look. The mailroom, where Helms has received millions of requests over the years and which gets 1,500 letters a day, looks much like any other.
"We also get about 3,500 e-mails a day, and about 1,000 faxes a day," said staff assistant David Crotts.
Present and former staffers say you will find a theme throughout the offices which mirrors the philosophy Helms brought to Washington: protect North Carolina industries, do not raise any taxes, and do not turn back any requests involving children.
"And to this day, I think the numbers show that he has seen over 100,000 children from North Carolina," said former Helms staffer Steve Phillips.
Everyone wants to see the room where Helms works, because it shows dozens of cartoons mocking the senator
"This is one of our favorites. It portrays Senator Helms as a bank teller with the gate down that says 'this window is closed,' and the title of the gate is 'foreign aid,'" said Assistant Chief of Staff Langley Kivette, pointing to one of the many cartoons on the walls.
Then there are the autographed photos sent to Helms, including shots from Richard Petty, actor Jimmy Stewart, and former President Bush.
For Helms' staffers, it is hard to believe that someone else will have this office.
"Two years from now, there may be a new member here, but it will take a lot longer than that to replace Senator Helms," said Helms staffer Kevin Koonce.
Other observers had observations on the retirement announcement as well.
"The Senate will lose a giant -- someone who has been in the Senate for three decades," says Tripp Baird of the
. "I think as conservatives go, he has probably been the staunchest conservative we have had in the Senate."
"This is the end of a political era, that has been ending for some time in a lot of Southern states," says John Samples of the
. "Jesse Helms will be replaced, I think, in the Republican party by a cultural conservative. It will be a conservative who does not have all of the baggage from the segregation era, so it will be very different."
"He has had an impact on obviously conservatives, but liberals as well. He is lionized by conservatives and villified by liberals, so on both sides, he has had an impact so it depends on who you talk to," Baird says.
Members of the
told WRAL by phone that the people on Pennsylvania Avenue will be relieved that Helms could be retiring. They say whoever has an administration in the White House — Republican or Democrat — will be relieved because Helms has blocked a number of candidates of both parties from various posts.
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