RALEIGH, N.C. — A storied conservative political operative and central adviser to former Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms has died.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said Friday that 97-year-old Tom Ellis of Raleigh, North Carolina, died Thursday. Boyle is Ellis' son-in-law.

Ellis was a lawyer who encouraged Helms to exploit the name recognition he'd built as a North Carolina radio and television commentator and run for U.S. Senate in 1972. After Helms won, Ellis helped create a new, aggressive type of fundraising operation and political machine. The National Congressional Club helped pioneer the use of direct mail to solicit campaign donations.

The money allowed Helms and other conservative candidates to reach voters directly with TV commercials that attacked Democrats, labor unions, black activists, feminists and homosexuals.