In North Carolina, Teddy Kennedy is often caricatured as a wine-drinking, woman-chasing, tax-raising symbol of undisciplined liberal Democratic politics.
But in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s home state, Massachusetts voters have a quick retort:
Teddy’s not perfect, they say, but we didn’t elect that gay-bashing, race-baiting, nay-saying Jesse Helms.
“Helms says some crazy things - about AIDS and wanting to quarantine people,” said Chris Wilder, 26, a Republican and restaurant owner in Boston’s financial district. “He’s way out there on the radical fringe.”
Forgive the harsh words.
But this town is taking the whole business about William Weld, the would-be ambassador to Mexico who resigned the Massachusetts governor’s office to fight Helms, personally.
Republican Helms offended a local son when he said the former governor - a Republican who’s popular in Boston for his conservative views on taxpayer money and libertarian views on personal freedom - isn’t serious enough to represent the United States in Mexico.
Once rarely mentioned in Boston, Helms, the conservative Monroe, N.C., native who is chairman the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now dominates the talk on Boston radio, evening newscasts and front-page stories.
It’s a battle that pits the wily Southern conservative against the wealthy Boston Brahmin:
Helms says he’ll use his Senate authority to refuse to hold a confirmation hearing on Weld. And Weld says he will fight “a land war, it might be an air war,” against Helms to win the nomination.
The escalating battle points out just how differently the Bay State and Tar Heel State define a good politician.
“I’d say they’re a lot more conservative down there,” said Patrick Grace, a bartender at a downtown Boston pub.
Dewey Gaskins, owner of the Big Dixie tobacco warehouse in Wilson, the heart of the N.C. Golden Leaf market, said he and other Helms fans think the senator’s politics make perfect sense.
They applaud Helms’ fierce resolve and defense of traditional values over politically correct fads - and support his call on Weld.
“That Massachusetts crowd can stay up north - they think we’re all ignorant down this end of the road,” Gaskins said. “Well, tobacco and us ignorant farmers built everything down here - and Jesse stands up for us.”
But, just as tens of thousands of Bay Staters cringe at the label “Teddy Kennedy liberals,” tens of thousands of North Carolinians shrink from the moniker “Jesse Helms conservatives.”
Still, both men have vehement defenders at home, many of whom value the senators’ seniority in Congress.
“You all electing Helms says the same thing it says about Massachusetts voters who keep electing Kennedy,” said Wilder, a Kennedy critic. “They’re both powerful men who do a good job for their state, but their politics are a little whacked.”
A Wall Street Journal editorial backs Helms in the fight with Weld, and it argues that Massachusetts politicians are too tuned to the intellectual chablis-sippers at places like Harvard.
“In that milieu, it’s ‘brave’ to insult Jesse Helms,” the editorial said.
The paper questions Weld’s lack of diplomacy in holding news conferences to attack the chairman who oversees his job application. Perhaps, the Journal said, “Mr. Weld is too flaky for any job outside of Massachusetts.”
Massachusetts residents say they don’t want to disparage North Carolinians, but figure that many of the 52 percent to 53 percent of voters who elect Helms every six years are purposely overlooking what Bostonians see as his right-wing world views.
“This was a city of immigrants that kept a lunch-bucket liberalism,” said Ed Jesser, a Democratic consultant based in Boston. “People here don’t think it’s a sin to be poor - or different.”
“Around here, Jesse is a wildly unpopular troglodyte and (House Speaker) Newt (Gingrich) has poll numbers lower than the Boston strangler,” said David Nyhan, a longtime political columnist for The Boston Globe.
The criticism seems to amuse Helms. If this fight erupted in an election year, some argue, it might help strengthen his core voters.
But more than hurling insults, folks in Boston want to know how Helms can play dictator, refusing to hold even a hearing for Weld when a majority of the Foreign Relations Committee wants the nomination to move forward.
“It’s undemocratic,” said Tom Westin, 22, a law student in Boston.
But Gaskins, from Wilson, said he cheers Helms’ one-man blockade.
“Jesse’s right,” he said. “That guy came out of nowhere talking junk. He doesn’t deserve to be ambassador.”
Helms says he doesn’t like Weld’s view about legalizing marijuana for medical treatment. But many close to Helms say privately that the senator is still steamed about a remark Weld made while running for the Senate last year. Weld said he wasn’t sure he could support Helms as Foreign Relations chairman.
“That may have won the governor some applause in Boston, but it’s not the way you do business here,” a GOP Hill leadership staffer said.
Bostonians don’t see why Weld must play nice with Helms.
“Weld is dealing with the institution of the U.S. Senate where people - regardless of their ideological disagreements with Senator Helms - are used to paying a lot of deference to him,” said Bill Carrick, a national Democratic consultant and former South Carolina party director. “I don’t think this is the way to get confirmed as ambassador.”
While it might be fashionable among Bay Staters to bash Helms, some disagree. But they’re keeping their opinions - and their identities - to themselves.
“Helms is one of the last great Americans,” said the owner of a Democratic bar frequented by the Kennedys in a working-class Boston neighborhood. “I just can’t say that publicly.”