Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an ideological firebrand with a reputation as one of the Senate's most conservative lawmakers, died early this morning of natural causes in Raleigh. He was 86.
Helms was first elected to the Senate in 1972. He served five terms, the longest-serving Republican ever from North Carolina.
Called "Senator No" by some, Helms consistently argued against the United Nations, communism, government spending, welfare, arms control and foreign aid. He was pro-military, and often derisive on topics and people he opposed, including Martin Luther King Jr. and homosexuality.
Of the "Senator No" moniker, Helms said: "In 1978 the Raleigh News & Observer dubbed me 'Senator No.' It wasn't meant as a compliment, but I certainly took it as one."
In a statement released late this morning, Sen. Mitch McConnel of Kentucky, the Senate's minority leader and its ranking Republican, praised his former colleague as "a leading voice and courageous champion for the many causes he believed in."
"We mourn his passing and extend our deepest sympathies to the extended Helms family," McConnell said.
White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said the country lost "a great public servant and a true patriot today."
The White House is expected to release a statement from President Bush later today.
Railing against the reach of government was a favorite cause for Helms, except when it came to moral issues. In those cases, Helms believed government deserved to be a player.
"Big government cannot and will not solve the multitude of problems confronting our nation ... because big government is the problem," he told the North Carolina General Assembly in 1997.
Helms appealed to conservative, mostly white, rural North Carolinians. Throughout his service in public office, he maintained close ties to the religious right and made several appearances on the shows of televangelists Jim Baker and Pat Robertson.
In 1982, Helms fell short of pushing through measures that would have stripped the Supreme Court's jurisdiction on cases involving abortion, school prayer and school busing. He voted often to outlaw or restrict abortion rights and eliminate the use of busing for school integration. He also tried to do away with food stamps.
In 1989, Helms became embroiled in a national debate on homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine. Both were on display at an exhibit funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms tried, without success, to get Congress to pass a bill that banned federal funding for "obscene" art.
In 1990, Helms narrowly won an election against Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat and former mayor of Charlotte. A week before the election, Helms ran a television ad dubbed "White hands," which some derided as racist and others attributed to his victory in the race. The ad implies that Gantt's support of affirmative action policies was costing white voters their jobs.
"The paramount thing is whether a man believes in the principles of America and whether he is willing to stand up for them, win or lose," Helms once said.
Jesse Helms was born Oct. 18, 1921, in Monroe, N.C. He went to public schools and attended Wake Forest College before quitting to work briefly as a newspaper and radio journalist. In 1942, he entered the U.S. Navy and served during World War II.