26 NC lawmakers sit out of Helms resolution vote

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Twenty-six North Carolina legislators sat out a vote Tuesday on a resolution honoring the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, showing that the Republican remains a polarizing figure a year after his death.

The state Legislature approves dozens of honorary resolutions each two-year session, and the body’s bill drafting director, Gerry Cohen, said he could remember none of the others being avoided by so many lawmakers in his three-decade career.

None of about a dozen House members seated outside the chamber during the vote would say whether the effort was coordinated. But only one member each of the House and Senate registered an excused absence for the day.

Most of the holdouts were black Democrats such as Sen. Floyd McKissick. Helms opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a commentator and voted against its reauthorization once in the Senate.

“I could have never voted in favor of a resolution honoring Sen. Helms because of his divisive history and his anti-civil-rights principles,” said McKissick, D-Durham. McKissick said he instead skipped the resolution’s debate as a quiet protest.

Helms’ political career made him a lightning rod for controversy. He entered politics in helping elect segregationist candidate Willis Smith to the Senate in 1950 and his final campaign was in 1996. He led an unsuccessful filibuster in 1983 to stall the effort to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

Sixteen out of the state House’s 20 black members and five out of nine black senators skipped the vote that came after speeches praising Helms’ integrity, honesty and patriotism. They were joined by a handful of white Democrats and the only American Indian, a Democrat.

The Senate voted 41-1 for the Helms resolution, and the House 98-0.

The single dissenting vote came from Sen. Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, the Legislature’s first openly gay member.

As Helms’ family listened from seats in the legislative galleries overhead, lawmakers of both parties praised Helms for qualities ranging from his legendary constituent service to his advocacy for traditional values in turbulent times.

“He stepped forward when this country needed an anchor,” said Rep. Pearl Burris-Floyd, R-Gaston, the Legislature’s only black Republican.

Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, voted to honor Helms despite being “diametrically opposed” to the GOP icon on nearly every political issue.

“It’s about the people he represented. Once he’s gone and he’s dead, it stops being about Jesse Helms,” said Blue, who became the first black speaker of the state House in 1991 and ran unsuccessfully in 2002 for the Democratic nomination to contend for the U.S. Senate seat Helms vacated.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.