Hoping to Go Where No Black Democrat Ever Has—to the Senate—Harvey Gantt Takes on Jesse Helms

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Some liberal politicians, especially black liberals, might think twice about venturing into Benson, N.C. Not Harvey Gantt, the state's Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Perched atop a gaudy red-white-and-blue float, Gantt made himself at home last month in conservative Johnston County, rolling down Main Street as part of Benson's 41st annual Mule Days Parade. And while he was greeted coolly by some voters, most of them ardent supporters of GOP incumbent Jesse Helms, Gantt didn't seem to mind. "Jesse Helms is the most natural opponent I can have," says Gantt, 47, the first black Democrat ever nominated—anywhere—to run for the Senate. "His views are diametrically opposite of mine. And that's the perfect kind of political race—where he doesn't welsh on his positions and I don't welsh on mine."

Gantt's interest in politics and willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom began when the South was Old and he was new. His father, a dockworker in the Charleston Naval Shipyard, and his mother, a housewife, always preached the importance of social justice, and young Harvey listened. At Burke High School in 1960, he helped lead one of Charleston's first civil rights sit-ins when he and 27 classmates occupied an all-white dime-store lunch counter and were briefly slapped into jail for their trouble.

Spurred by a childhood dream to become an architect, young Harvey set his sights on entering Clemson University. But South Carolina state law required separate schools for blacks. Gantt filed suit, and armed with a court order and a police escort, he enrolled in January 1963. Today he downplays the significance of that act of quiet defiance. "It was out of necessity," he says. "I wanted to study architecture and practice it in the South."

Graduating with honors, he later went on to earn a master's in urban planning at MIT, then settled in Charlotte. In the mid-1970s he was appointed to the city council and in 1983 ran for mayor and won. In 1987 he narrowly lost a bid for a third term amid criticism that the city had become overdeveloped.

According to polls, Gantt and the ultra-conservative Helms, 69, are locked in a virtual dead heat. Blacks make up only 22 percent of voters in the state, but race is not the issue it was a generation ago. "Harvey's really a yuppie, and whites don't fear him." says Ted Arrington, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Meanwhile Jesse hasn't changed a lick since 1945." Charging that Helms is out of touch with voters on practical issues, Gantt has stressed education, the environment and health care in his campaign. With Helms keeping a low profile, confining his appearances mostly to small groups, Gantt has seized the initiative, traveling nearly 40,000 miles in the state. Usually he campaigns alone. Wife Cindy, 44, who teaches accounting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, stays in the background with the couple's four children.

So far the campaign has included some predictable mudslinging. In one TV spot, Helms described Gantt as "extremely different"—which struck many voters as a none-too-subtle reference to race. In another Helms and a woman declares that Gantt supports the right to an abortion "in the final weeks of pregnancy." In fact Gantt, who has generally shunned attack ads of his own, backs North Carolina law, which guarantees a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy during the first 20 weeks.

To Gantt, such tactics only serve to point up the differences between himself and Helms. "There ain't much half-stepping that can be done in the middle," he says. "You've got to be for the future or you want to stand still and look backward to some time that's not here anymore."

—Bill Hewitt, Luchina Fisher in North Carolina

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