Mandy Carter: Activism During the 1990 and 1996 Helms-Gantt Campaigns


Mandy Carter, circa 2000. Image courtesy of PM Press.

By Ramya Ramaswamy

Mandy Carter

“I was raised in the tradition that your life was your movement, your movement was your life[1].”

Mandy Carter is a renowned lesbian activist and organizer in the Durham community.

Carter was born in Albany, New York on November 2nd, 1948. Carter’s mother left Carter and her two siblings when Carter was five, and the siblings grew up in orphanages. Carter was raised in Albany Children’s Home. It was here that Carter first got her start as an organizer in the orphanage, with life geared towards the group: “my whole…beginning was always geared towards what was best for the larger body of people[1].” Carter dropped out of community college after a year of it and moved to New York City.

From New York, Carter hitchhiked to San Francisco and stayed with a draft resister, where she witnessed activism first-hand. “This was my first in, in terms of movement[1].” Carter learned about nonviolence in San Fransisco and became involved with the War Resister’s League.

Carter came out as a lesbian in San Francisco when she turned 21. Carter stated that coming out in San Francisco was a natural step, given the environment and the particular bar scene at the time. Carter was active in the San Francisco bar scene as both a bartender and a manager at lesbian bars.

After her time in California, Carter moved to North Carolina in 1982 to work for the War Resisters League in Durham. Through her connections in the community, Carter found herself involved in the project of organizing gays and lesbians to vote against Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990 elections.

Carter’s politics, pre-campaign

Carter’s politics before becoming an active part of the anti-Helms campaigns were grounded in the nonviolence rhetoric that stemmed from her position at the War Resister’s League. As Carter says regarding the anti-nuclear power Women’s Peace Walk in 1983, “it’s not the people but the government that makes policy decisions that have a profound impact on our lives…The Walk is in support of the People and the movements happening around the world…[2]”

In terms of political rhetoric, Carter preached that you can “never talk to people in terms of ‘you must, you should, it’s the only way.’ You never could talk in absolutes…it was more like, ‘What do you think you can do? What do you think your potential is[1]?” Through this limitless outlook on activism rather than focused recruitment, Carter attempted to form an inclusive anti-Helms community. However, Carter struggled to incorporate this into a politicized, racially-centric campaign with Sen. Jesse Helms and Mayor Harvey Gantt.

Senate Vote ’90 and NC Mobilization ‘96

Carter spent the year organizing N.C. Senate Vote ‘90, a statewide political campaign founded by Triangle-area lesbians and gay men for the purpose of defeating publically and politically homophobic Jesse Helms.

Senate Vote '90 was a statewide, grassroots, broad-based coalition effort that raised $279,000, had 300 volunteers and registered nearly 10,000 voters[3].

At the upstart, Senate Vote ‘90 had an office, but no money. However, once word began getting out about their campaign, support came along with. “We had people contacting us from Greensboro, Charlotte, Asheville, Wilmington asking ‘how can I get involved?’” said Carter. “The response was incredible, and that’s when we knew we had something[4].”

Senate Vote ‘90 volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, staffed phone banks, fundraised and registered voters. Gantt’s numbers continued to grow until he was actually leading in the polls.

Despite the quick mobilization monetarily and support-wise, Helms’ infamous “hands” ad blasting racial quotas weeks before the election stunned Gantt and his advocates and raised fear in “on the fence” voters, giving Helms the win with 52.5 percent of the vote. It was a crushing loss for North Carolina’s LGBT community and the coalition.

When Gantt decided to try again in 1996, Carter was prepared for round two: “NC Mobilization ’96,” was founded.

Although there was an established base, Carter found that there was a different dynamic; rather than the feeling of being proud of doing something tangible for the cause, many “Mobe ’96” members were opinionated in the directions and methods Carter chose for the group. Because Carter had done this once before, people expected her to have all of the answers, but conflictingly, were not satisfied with the ones she provided.

Despite these issues, Mobe ’96 had an impact in bringing in voters and active individuals to the Democratic Party. Realizing that, although getting the word out about Gantt was imperative, producing Democratic voters was a necessary long-term goal, Mobe ’96 worked closely with North Carolina’s Democratic Party[5].

Carter and Gantt’s rhetoric during the campaigns and what it affected

Carter based the majority of her rhetoric in 1990 on the foundations built by Jesse Helms. Helms’ campaign angle was one of attack; by using slander, exaggeration, and belittlement, Helms decided to derail Gantt through television ads, and radio spots, while refusing debates and other interactions.

Helms chose to cast his opponent as a “far-out, lefty oddball[6].” Beginning with the 1990 campaign, Helms used fear appeal more than Gantt, who focused on past experience[7].

Secondly, Helms focused on Gantt’s support base of minorities. "I know he's not running his own campaign," said Helms. "He's being run by the abortion-rights league, homosexuals, labor unions, people like that[6]."

The organization formed a two-fold rebuttal. One, the campaign took an educational approach to Helms’ attack. In one of the campaign posters put out by Senate Vote ’90, the PAC carefully addressed Helms’ anti-AIDS funding history.


“By 1992 it is projected that 450,000 U.S. Citizens will be infected by the AIDs virus. Currently there are about 1,500 North Carolinians with AIDs. Jesse Helms …. has wasted precious time on smoke screen issues and homophobic proposals.”

An educated rebuttal did not prove fruitful for Gantt. "He expects people to be reasonable and rational," says Jeff Huberman, a colleague of Gantt’s. "But intellectual politicians don't always win. Sometimes people want to hear the easiest answer-simplistic, emotional answers, as in Helms's ads[8].”

Secondly, the PAC made sure to actively embrace the accusations of being a fringe group, in hopes of appealing to minorities. When Helms’ chief aid described them as a coalition of "homosexuals, artists, pacifists and other left-wingers,” Carter responded with: “People need to realize, we also are North Carolinians and we are voters[9]."

This defensive approach to Helms’ attacks did not provide Gantt and Senate Vote ‘90 with a victory in 1990. For the 1996 election, Gantt and Carter took more moderate approaches.

Gantt shifted his campaign rhetoric from vague feel-good rhetoric as the African-American underdog to a direct appeal to the middle-class, emphasizing what they want and need, and the fact that Helms, in his Senatorial career, hasn’t provided them with it[10].

Carter made coalition and community building a focus. "Five years ago," Carter said, "I would have said the only thing I had on my mind was getting rid of Helms. But now I think building the coalition and getting people to work together--that is the larger picture[11]."

Carter’s rhetoric evolved from focusing on building grassroots support amongst her more liberal supporters to focusing on electoral support inside the constituency. "Electoral organizing can be a valuable complement to other methods, especially when we approach elections as opportunities to build bridges, organize coalitions, and involve people who might never have spoken out before,” Carter said, retrospectively[12].

Summary of aftermath of campaigns and Carter’s reflections

Carter approached Gantt’s losses from two perspectives in 1996. First: Carter believed the main issue was that the gay community and the African-American community could not get over its racism and homophobia, respectively, for a united front. Carter, Senate Vote ‘90 and NC Mobilization ‘96 did little to broach gay rights as an important topic in the African-American community and civil rights in that of the gay community.

However, through the two campaigns, Carter was able to garner monetary and constituent support to make the election a close loss of Helms with 52.6% of votes and Gantt, 45.9%[13]. Finally, the race was a victory because of the LGBT rights grassroots that took hold in North Carolina post-elections. Reflecting on the movement after Helms’ death, Carter stated: “Jesse Helms has come and gone. But as a community and a movement, we’re still here. We’ve outlasted Jesse Helms[12].”


  1. Carter, Mandy, interview by Holloway Sparks. Women's Leadership and Grassroots Activism: Lesbian Activists (October 3, 1996).
  2. War Resisters League Handout (1923-1983). Mandy Carter files, box 6. Rubenstein Library, Duke University.”
  3. Carter, Mandy. “Things Could be Finer in N. Carolina.” Gay Community News 19. 25 (Jan 12, 1992): 4.
  4. Stout, David. "Helms Created Our Stonewall." Q-Notes. July 26, 2008. (accessed April 18, 2012).
  5. Ahearn, Lorraine. “GANTT STICKS TO THEMES THAT SPEAK TO MIDDLE CLASS”. The News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC). (Oct. 23, 1996) News: pA1
  6. Grady, Sandy. "Helms-Gantt race is a matter of race." The Baltimore Sun, October 15, 1990.
  7. Kaid, Lynda Lee and Dianne G. Bystrom. The Electronic Election. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 1999.
  8. Harris, Art. “Harvey Gantt's Fight to the Finish.” The Washington Post 04 Nov 1990: F1. The Washington Post Co. 18 Apr 2012.
  9. Morning Edition: 1. “North Carolina Emotional Senate Election.” Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio. (Sep 12, 1990)
  10. Ahearn, Lorraine. “Gantt Sticks to Themes that Speak to Middle Class.” The News & Record. (Oct. 23, 1996) News: pA1
  11. Galst, Liz. Ms; May 1996; 6,6; GenderWatchPg. 28
  12. Carter, Mandy. “Organizing for Justice, Not “Just Us”. Peacework; Nov 2007; 34, 380; Alt- PressWatch pg. 4
  13. Teague-Beck, Ryan. How Gantt fared in North Carolina. March 5, 2008. (accessed April 18, 2012).