1st add includes Sen. Jesse Helms' announcement to retire.
(CNSNews.com) - Outspoken conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) announced his plans to retire Wednesday at the age of 79, which would end his career in the U.S. Senate after 30 years.
"I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 and was elected and lived to finish a sixth term. And this, my family and I've decided unanimously that I should not do and ladies and gentlemen, I shall not," the senator said.
Helms made the announcement from WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., where he was a political commentator for 12 years before winning a Senate seat in 1972. The announcement comes just months after Helms stepped down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee after Democrats took control of the Senate.
"You see if my health continues to be good when my present fifth term ends in 2002 ? I will be 81 years old and I will then have served 30 years as a senator for North Carolina, longer than any other senator elected by the people of North Carolina. And not in my wildest imagination did it ever occur to me that such a privilege would ever be mine," he said.
The senator expressed his gratitude to his staff over the years, whom he called the "finest, hardest-working, most dedicated young people serving with me every moment I've been a United States senator."
Helms became a conservative icon because of his views on foreign policy, life issues and social moral issues, such as homosexuality.
"Senator Helms went to Washington, but never became a part of Washington," President Bush said in a statement. "He has always remained true to his conservative principles. When Senator Helms retires, the Senate will have lost a respected leader, but I have no doubt we will continue to seek his counsel as a senior statesman," he said.
One of Helms' colleagues in the House, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), praised Helms for his "statesmanship, for his leadership, and being a man of faith and principle, faith and integrity."
"For those of us who are conservative, we are going to miss his conservative leadership," Jones said. "There are so many issues Jesse Helms has been out in front on, sometimes alone, especially on the [the Panama Canal treaty]; he has also been a staunch supporter of the rights of unborn, those who have been victims of their government, such as China and Cuba.
"If we had more people like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, it would definitely be a better America. He will be sorely missed," he said.
One of the issues Helms has been most outspoken on is keeping a tight embargo on Cuba, frequently publicly admonishing Cuban leader Fidel Castro and standing up for the rights of Cuban immigrants. Because of his vocal opinions on Cuba, Helms has gained much support from the Cuban-American community.
"Senator Helms is clearly a hero for not just the Cuban-American community, but for all of America," said Dennis Hays, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation. "He is a man of principle who is not afraid to act on that principle.
"He has been an inestimable service to a free Cuba, and we will miss him greatly," he said.
While Helms is revered as a stalwart of American conservatism, the left is more than happy to see him leave the Senate.
"He was the greatest enemy we have in either the House or the Senate," said John Campbell, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Political Action and Support group, a grass roots homosexual organization. "He has had an obsession with working against anything at all for gays and we are delighted to see him go.
"There is no telling who will replace him, but he can't be near as bad as Jesse Helms," he said.
Among the Republican candidates expected to seek Helms' seat include Elizabeth Dole, former presidential candidate and cabinet members; Reps. Richard Burr and Robin Hayes; former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who lost his seat in 2000 to Democrat John Edwards; former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot and trial attorney Jim Snyder.
Two Democrats are planning to run: Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and state Rep. Dan Blue.