Black Jesse Helms goes district shopping

by Amy Kingsley

The political ring in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District ‘— anchored by Raleigh and Greensboro’— is gearing up to host a bare-knuckle rhetorical brawl between two candidates known for not pulling punches.Incumbent Brad Miller (D-NC) will defend his seat against the leader of a Republican pack of three set to duke it out in the May primary. Vernon Robinson, a contender in the 2004 race for the 5th Congressional district, is one of the Republicans vying for Miller’s spot this year.The Miller campaign has already launched an e-mail campaign drawing attention to an ad recently pulled from Robinson’s website. The ad featured the theme from the ‘“Twilight Zone’” and promoted Robinson’s archly conservative stance on issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage and illegal immigration. It ends with a grinning shot of Theodore ‘“Beaver’” Cleaver (Jerry Mathers) from the hit 1950s TV show.Miller’s camp portrayed the ad as an alarmist and divisive attack, even though the Democratic candidate’s name was not mentioned. Robinson said he removed the ad to tweak a more specific version addressing Miller’s voting record.’“If anybody is going to be making the attacks, it’s going to be Brad Miller,’” Robinson said.A defamation suit from Miller’s first 13th District opponent, Carolyn Grant, remains unresolved at the NC Superior Court level. The statement in question accused Grant of stealing $40,000 from her son’s college fund and it occurred in a television ad.Despite the Congressman’s spotty history with negative political ads, his campaign managers parlayed the Robinson sally into an opportunity to solicit funds for what could be a pitched battle. Robinson trounced his fundraising competition last year, raising almost $3 million for a primary square off with eventual winner Virginia Foxx, the Republican who represents North Carolina’s 5th district.’“Do we feel like we’re going to need to raise $3 million by November? No,’” said Miller campaign manager PJ Puryear. ‘“Do we feel like we’re going to need to raise a lot more than we thought? Yes.’”Whether Robinson poses a serious threat to the incumbent is another issue. Robinson bills himself as ‘“the black Jesse Helms,’” but his race and his politics often work against each other in Republican primaries, said Ted Arrington, chair of the political science department at UNC-Charlotte.’“Jesse and Vernon’s tactics amount to political name calling,’” Arrington said. ‘“Vernon will use the most divisive issues he possibly can. It’s not about getting most of the votes, its about getting the people most excited out to vote.’”Robinson practices slash-and-burn politics even during the primary, Arrington said. It is a tactic Helms used to retain purchase on his office, but it has not worked for his black counterpart.’“If Vernon had been white, that tactic might very well have worked,’” Arrington said. ‘“But for a black Republican, it’s a little harder. Most conservatives have to have a really strong doubt about the white Republican to move over to the black Republican.’”There are several Republicans interested in diversifying their party base, Arrington said. Unfortunately for Robinson, they are often turned off by his positions and negative campaign style.The tactic has served him well in political fundraising and brought him close to upsetting Foxx in 2004. Robinson’s vaunted $3 million war chest grew almost exclusively from individual donations, a feat he ascribes to his connection to constituents.North Carolina residents composed a scant 7 percent of Robinson’s donors. Nonetheless, he has already accused Miller of being beholden to outside special interests.’“Miller has a problem,’” Robinson said. ‘“His money is raised outside the district from mobbed-up union bosses.’”In 2004, Miller raised more than $1 million divided almost equally between political action committees and individual donations. North Carolina residents provided about 92 percent of Miller’s donations from individuals. ‘“What Goldwater and especially the Republican club under Helms perfected was the combination of fundraising with TV advertising,’” Arrington said. ‘“That way they have an ad and a letter out about the same issue on the same day.’”The same style of appealing to voters most excited about an issue works for political donors as well, Arrington said.’“It appeals to a small number of people very strongly,’” he said.The positions Robinson has promoted in the past include public display of the Ten Commandments, an American flag-burning ban, pro-life, anti-gun control and lower taxes. His website attacks Miller as an ‘“ultra-liberal’” with ‘“kooky and extreme positions’” who is out-of-touch with mainstream American values.Robinson entered the race for the 13th District despite residing in the 5th because of a poll that said Miller had limited name recognition. In the western part of the district Robinson said he might be better known than his opponent.But before Robinson can take on the man he says ‘“is wrong about everything,’” he must prevail over Republicans John Hendrix and Charlie Sutherland. Ultimately, the campaign strategy Robinson has adopted might do more to help his opponent Miller.’“We’ve had tremendous response from people,’” Puryear said. ‘“We feel confident because we’re gaining support everyday.’”To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at