There are seminal moments that reshape a community's public life. Dec. 1 will be one of those, when Democrat Parks Helms steps down from the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, more than 30 years after first winning public office.
Helms is this region's leading liberal, and proudly so. He has spent the past 16 years on the county board, and 10 years in the state House before that, advocating on behalf of his neediest constituents. Imbued from an early age with a compassion for the underdog, Helms has consistently been the voice for the poor, the underrepresented and the victims of discrimination.
His departure from elected office is a loss for them, and for this community.
Helms, who attended his final meeting Tuesday night, had his critics. Conservatives decried his willingness to raise taxes and increase government spending. He presided over a 15 percent property tax rate increase in 2001 and a 10.6 percent hike in 2005. He pushed relentlessly for bonds and aggressive funding of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, social services and other government programs. He could be preachy, and partisan.
Call him a bleeding heart liberal, but his bleeding heart remembers people too often forgotten in a city of bankers and developers and other high-rollers. He grew up in the Belmont neighborhood when it was an area of white millworkers and never forgot that Charlotte has plenty of poverty and thousands of people working hard to make ends meet, even if it appears glossy to outsiders.
During his years as a commissioner, Mecklenburg County made major advances in environmental protection, especially in protecting its waterways. The Park and Recreation Department and public library system were strengthened during his tenure, and Helms was a key advocate for mass transit.
He was also a leading supporter of several initiatives that didn't pass: in the legislature, the Equal Rights Amendment and merit selection of judges; locally, consolidation of Charlotte and Mecklenburg government.
In 1997, a “Gang of Five” commissioners cut off funding to the Arts & Science Council after Charlotte Repertory Theatre staged “Angels in America,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play with nudity and gay themes. Helms fought that cut with all he had, and it cost him his chairmanship. Two years later he was back in power and restored funding to the ASC. It was one of countless times he was on the side of compassion and open-mindedness. He later led the charge to add sexual orientation to the county's nondiscrimination policy.
Despite his passionate liberalism, he has often been a quiet, guiding force on the board. Many of county government's achievements the past 16 years benefited from his leadership. Even his most avid adversaries on the board respected his decorum and dignity, even as they disagreed.
Mr. Helms, thank you for your service.