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Helms Raises Race as an Issue in Re-Election Bid

October 23, 1996

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Just two weeks before Election Day, Sen. Jesse Helms is raising race as an issue in his rematch against Democrat Harvey Gantt, who is black.

A new TV ad from the conservative Republican accuses Gantt of enjoying preferential treatment because of his minority status to reap millions of dollars. The ad began running this week and echoes the last weeks of their first contest, in 1990.

``We’re back to 1990,″ said David Paletz, a Duke University political scientist. ``Race has always been there. Race is now there in black and white.″

A poll released Sunday showed Helms with 51 percent and Gantt with 44 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Two other polls, also taken between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16, showed Gantt was still within range of Helms.

The ad says: ``In 1986, Harvey Gantt used his minority status to purchase interest in a TV station under false pretense. ... Weeks later, he and his partners sold the station to a white-owned corporation, making millions.″

The ad also says Gantt, who is an architect, used his minority status ``to get preferential treatment on public school contracts.″ The ad does not specify the contracts Gantt may have landed.

``I think Jesse Helms is desperately trying to change the subject. He would rather rerun false attacks than defend his record on Medicare and Social Security,″ said Gantt spokeswoman Dalit Toledano. ``The fact is that Harvey Gantt is a successful, award-winning architect and businessman who does not use his minority status to get business.″

A Helms campaign spokeswoman said the ad has nothing to do with race, but with Gantt’s ethics.

``Take a look at what some of the major newspapers in North Carolina had to say about Mr. Gantt’s shady business deals,″ Julie Wilkie said.

The Helms campaign provided reporters with scores of articles to support claims made in the ad, including a 1994 story in The Charlotte Observer in which school board members said they wanted to give Gantt’s firm more time to negotiate a contract because it would help meet minority contracting goals.

Paletz called the ads clever.

``He’s not attacking blacks. He’s attacking something that is of benefit to African-Americans which is unpopular in the state and then he identifies Gantt with that,″ Paletz said. ``There’s an important distinction here, which makes him less vulnerable to accusations of race-baiting or gay baiting, even though that is what he is doing.″

If Helms repeats his 1990 strategy, voters could see even sharper ads on affirmative action before the election on Nov. 5, the professor said.

Shortly before Election Day in 1990, Helms ran an ad showing a pair of white hands crumpling a sheet of paper as an announcer said a sought-after job went to someone else because of affirmative action. The ad links Gantt to support for racial quotas, which the Democrat denies.

The television license was raised against Gantt when he ran for re-election as Charlotte’s mayor in 1987 and by Helms in 1990. Gantt lost both contests.

Gantt applied with other investors in 1984 to the Federal Communication Commission for a license to build a new station outside of Charlotte.

Gantt’s original investor group, which was 80 percent white, merged with a minority-owned group to become the only applicants for the license. Four months after winning the FCC license, the group sold it to a Raleigh broadcast company for more than $3 million.

Gantt’s investment was about $50,000. His return was $450,000, plus 10 percent interest, over 10 years. Newspaper reports in 1990 quoted an FCC official as saying that race was not a factor in awarding the license.

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