Progressive North Carolinians may have comforted themselves with the notion that Jesse Helms, the segregationist Republican who served the US Senate for three decades, was a relic of the state’s racist past when he died in 2008.
The truth is many Republican volunteers never stopped revering Helms, and the party’s boosters should have the courage to admit that NC GOP holds a sordid record of exploiting racial division to maintain power, from the “Southern strategy” backlash against the 1964 Civil Rights Act that boosted Helms into the Senate to the 2016 election, when the party helped deliver the state into Donald Trump’s column.
The throughline of deliberate racial polarization combined with ugly voter suppression tactics against African Americans has continued unabated over the past 50 years, held in check only by the US Justice Department. It’s hard to think of a more committed operative to the cause than Thomas Farr, who has received President Trump’s nomination to fill a federal judgeship in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
As Newsweek recently reported, Farr represented Helms in a complaint filed by the Justice Department during the first Bush administration alleging that the campaign and the NC Republican Party used mailers targeting African Americans to scare them away from the polls during the 1990 election. That year, Helms was defending his Senate seat against Harvey Gantt, the black mayor of Charlotte. The 1990 election stands out for its singular ugliness, with the Helms campaign airing the infamous television ad showing the hands of a white man in a plaid shirt reading and then crumpling a job rejection letter, while a narrator intoned, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?”
The Justice Department alleged at the time that Helms’ re-election campaign was also involved in an effort with the state GOP to mail 125,000 postcards, mostly to eligible black voters, suggesting, as the New York Times reported at the time, “that they were not eligible and warning that if they went to the polls they could be prosecuted for voter fraud.”
Helms strategist Carter Wrenn denied that the campaign had been involved in the mailing, but said the campaign agreed to settle because it couldn’t afford the cost of litigating the case. According to an Associated Press account, Assistant Attorney General John Dunne issued a statement declaring that the consent decree prohibited the NC Republican Party “from conducting any so-called ballot security programs directed at voters simply because they are black.”
More than 20 years after the Helms campaign signed the consent decree, Thom Tillis, speaker of the NC House, introduced what has come to be known as the most restrictive election law in the nation, saying, “We are here to announce that after a deliberate and transparent process, we will be filing a voter ID bill today that protects the integrity of the ballot box and respects the sanctity of the right to vote.”
And who did the General Assembly hire to defend the law against a complaint brought by the US Justice Department and the state NAACP? Thomas Farr, of course.
The law was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2016 ruling that concluded that “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” while placing it squarely in North Carolina’s dishonorable tradition of disenfranchisement.
“The record makes clear that the historical origin of the challenged provisions in this statute is not the innocuous back-and-forth of routine partisan struggle that the state suggests and that the district court accepted,” the court ruled. “Rather, the General Assembly enacted them in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting.”
There was a certain poetic irony to the scene of now US Sen. Thom Tillis presiding over a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to consider Farr’s nomination on Sept. 20. Apparently overlooking the Fourth Circuit’s rebuke and neglecting to mention his own role in creating the unconstitutional law, Tillis opined that Farr is “widely respected as one of the best legal minds in North Carolina.”
Asked by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to explain how he could make the case that the voter law was not discriminatory, Farr was nothing but genial.
“I’m absolutely bound by the Fourth Circuit,” he said. “I have the greatest respect for the judges who sat on that panel. They saw things differently than my client.”
He also helpfully said that “at the time our clients enacted those laws I do not believe they believed they were purposely discriminating against African Americans,” without pointing out that one of them was presiding over his confirmation hearing.
Richard Burr, the senior senator from North Carolina, also joined in the see-no-evil bonhomie.
“Most important thing is Tom Farr’s a good man, and I think what we look for is good people to serve in a capacity like a district judge,” Burr said. “He fills every piece of the word good.”
If defending a politician who mastered the dark arts of racial polarization and also argued for a law that “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision” match Burr’s idea of a “good man,” he has a strange definition of the word “good.”