The Charlotte Observer, 10/7/96
By JIM MORRILL, Staff Writer
Until this year, Patsy Clarke had been a lifelong Republican and faithful supporter of Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. When her husband, Harry, died in 1987, Helms called in sympathy and even paid tribute to his late friend in the Congressional Record.
So when Clarke's 31-year-old son Mark died of AIDS in 1994, she wrote to Helms, an outspoken critic of homosexuals. She asked him to support AIDS research and not pass judgment on other people. Helms replied.
"I know that Mark's death was devastating to you," he wrote. "I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity. I have sympathy for him - and for you. But there is no escaping the reality of what happened."
What the 67-year-old Clarke saw as coldness in Helms' reply prompted her to co-found the Raleigh-based "Mothers Against Jesse in Congress."
MAJIC is one of several groups - small and large - trying to influence North Carolina's U.S. Senate race and other contests with money or manpower. Many are anti-Helms. Others are expected to weigh in against Democrats, including Helms' rival Harvey Gantt.
They range from national organizations such as organized labor's AFL-CIO to groups such as VANISH (Voters Against N.C. Incumbent Sen. Helms), started by a handful of Chapel Hill rock bands that raised $16,000 at a benefit concert in July.
Such groups are no strangers in politics. Most are required to file spending reports with the Federal Election Commission and generally are barred from cooperating with candidate campaigns.
Like their motives, their levels of involvement vary.
An AFL-CIO spokesman recently said the group was spending "less than $100,000" a week running ads in the 2nd Congressional District against Republican Rep. David Funderburk. Spokesman Deborah Dion said the ad campaign is "not political. It's educational." She said it's unclear what, if anything, the group will do in the Senate race.
While labor helps Democrats, other groups typically aid Republicans.
The FEC currently is suing the Christian Coalition, arguing among other things that it illegally contributed to Helms' 1990 campaign by distributing 750,000 "voter guides" and making 29,800 phone calls as part of a get-out-the-vote telephone bank.
One of the largest independent efforts in North Carolina is being run by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group. For it, Helms is the year's No. 1 target.
It plans to spend $225,000 in the state to defeat Helms, according to Michael Armentrout, head of the N.C. effort. He says the group, which raises much of its money in North Carolina, plans mailings and phone calls, particularly to swing voters. The group does not expressly identify itself as a gay-rights group in mailings, but doesn't hide it if asked, Armentrout said.
"It's not focused at all on gay issues," Armentrout says. "It's focused on what the (voter) in North Carolina tells us are important to them. We know the issues are education, crime, the environment and those sorts of things."
Helms spokesman Eddie Woodhouse says the campaign takes such groups "very seriously."
"These are radical, liberal groups, most from out-of-state, who are trying to influence the voters of North Carolina," Woodhouse says. "They can raise money. They can mobilize troops."
Some groups organized to fight Helms - including the Charlotte-based "Not Helms PAC" - already have dissolved. Those still active include:
* N.C. Mobilization '96. The gay-oriented group based in the Raleigh area has raised less than $20,000 so far, says organizer Mandy Carter, 47. But she says she feels more optimistic than she did in 1990, in part because gays and lesbians are more visible and active.
* Musicians Organized for Voter Education. This is a Chapel Hill-based coalition of musicians and performers critical of Helms' opposition to public arts funding. Spokesman Erik Ose, 25, says the group has focused on registering young people at festivals and concerts.
* Clean Up Congress. Working on college campuses and in communities, the group has raised more than $100,000 since May, says spokesman Alex Kaplan, 25. He says volunteers are distributing 100,000 copies of Helms' environmental voting record, which he called "the worst."
Patsy Clarke of MAJIC says she tries to be realistic about what groups such as hers can do.
"There are times when I think we're going to have a big impact because our message is one of emotion," she says. "Realistically we feel like David and Goliath. We only hope that the result could be the same as David's."