PATSY CLARKE STILL RECALLS THE lift she got from a call she received from Sen. Jesse Helms in March 1987. Her businessman husband, Harry, 60, a prominent Republican activist, had been killed in the crash of a private plane near their home in Asheville, N.C. A few days later, Helms called to console her—and apologized for not contacting her sooner. “I am so sorry about Harry,” the senator said. “You must have thought I was sitting on my hands.”
Clarke was moved. But not as moved as she was last year by another communication from Helms. In June 1995, a year after her son Mark had died of AIDS at 31, she sent Helms a letter imploring him to soften his antigay stance. In reply, she received a note from Helms in which he expressed deep sympathy for her loss but, to her amazement, also implied that Mark had somehow deserved his fate. “As for homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not,” he wrote. “I wish he had not played Russian roulette in his sexual activity…. But there is no escaping the reality of what happened.” A lifelong conservative Republican, Clarke, now 67, could barely contain her rage. “That set me off like a rocket,” she says.
The rocket has landed in the roiling waters of this year’s North Carolina Senate race. Last December, Clarke and her friend Eloise Vaughn, 64, whose son, also named Mark, had died of AIDS in 1990 at 34, founded a political action committee called Mothers Against Jesse in Congress (MAJIC). Starting out with 30 members, comprised almost entirely of elderly women who have lost sons to AIDS, the group has since grown to more than 1,000. They hold rallies and fundraisers around the state, and their avowed goal is to help defeat Helms, a four-term senator, in his reelection bid against former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt.
It is the sort of activist role that Clarke never envisioned for herself. She spent much of her life raising four children and occasionally acting in regional theater productions. Still, the Clarke family was not entirely conventional. One of Mark’s sisters, Judy Clarke, 44, is counsel for Unabomber defendant Theodore Kaczynski. Judy, who also helped defend child-killer Susan Smith in Union, S.C., says her parents tried to foster an independent streak in their children and that she is not surprised by her mother’s crusade. “I’m really proud of her,” says Judy, who lives in Spokane, Wash. “But I always knew she had it in her. My mother has always been outspoken.”
Her son’s death left Patsy emotionally devastated. Mark had been diagnosed with HIV in 1990 while he was a student at California Western School of Law in San Diego. Subsequently he moved to West Palm Beach, Fla., and became a salesman at Saks Fifth Avenue. Finally in January 1992, with his health failing, he told his mother he was gay, which she had long suspected, and that he had HIV “Everyone was very loving and supportive,” says Judy. “We did the best any family could do with someone who was young, attractive, had a great future and is dying.” In March 1994, Mark died. Fifteen months later, Patsy sent Helms her letter asking him to rethink his hostility toward gays—whom he has called sodomites—arguing that “AIDS is not a disgrace, it is a tragedy.” She was so incensed by his response that she read it to the AIDS support group she belonged to in Raleigh. Several members of the group broke down, and Clarke and Vaughn decided right then to harness that anger by working to oust Helms.
Some members of the group, by and large conservative folk who sing in church choirs and attend Bible-study classes, balked at first. But by the next meeting, Clarke says, almost all had come around, and they began pooling their money “in a banana box and a pickle jar.” They held their first rally last May 12—Mother’s Day—on the grounds of the capitol in Raleigh, attracting 300 spectators and media coverage.
From the start, theirs was an uphill battle. (Most current polls show Helms with a five-to seven-point lead over Gantt.) But Clarke and Vaughn are undeterred. As they see it, they are at the very least laying the groundwork for future political change in North Carolina, whose politics, thanks in part to an influx of high-tech workers in recent years, are drifting more to the center. Says Jack Betts, an associate editor at the Charlotte Observer: “[They] are not from somewhere else, and they are saying, ‘My family has diversity’ They may have some impact.”
“I only care,” says Clarke, “that people have their eyes opened, and that they don’t view others as not as good as they are.”
NICOLE BRODEUR in Raleigh