Leading from the Left

Monday, October 29, 2007

In Honor of Joe

For those who are interesed in honoring the legacy and life of Joe Herzenberg, we are suggesting that you make a contribution to either Equality NC or the InterFaith Council.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Good-bye, My Friend

Tonight, my friend and mentor Joe Herzenberg died after a long illness.

Joe’s death is a great loss for the progressive community in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. He was a fighter for racial justice, LGBT rights, affordable housing, greenways, libraries, civil liberties and the list could go on and on.

As we gathered around Joe this afternoon, all holding hands in a circle around his hospital bed, listening to his Rabbi pray, knowing that Joe was in the last hours of his life, I couldn’t help but to think of all he’d done for us, for his community. For me, one thing stands out above all others.

His election 20 years ago to the Chapel Hill Town Council, when he became North Carolina’s first openly gay elected official, changed the South. By breaking through that barrier he opened the door for those of us who followed in North Carolina: me, Gloria Faley, Mark Kleinschmidt, State Senator Julia Boseman, Judge John Arrowood, and (hopefully) Lydia Lavelle. That election began a slow march, a journey, that led to Carrboro becoming the first municipality in the South to adopt domestic partnership benefits, to the governor appointing John Arrowood to the NC Court of Appeals, and to Jim Neal becoming the first openly gay man to run for US Senate in North Carolina.

I’ve been thinking a great deal of Joe’s election in 1987 recently. I was his campaign manager that year, and I’ve been around to see first hand the changes that followed. It was like throwing a rock into a lake…the ripples continued, and continued, and continue. Twenty years ago, I don’t think any of us, including Joe, could have guessed that in 2008 we’d have not one but two openly gay candidates running for state wide office in North Carolina.

Of course, Joe’s accomplishments transcended sexual orientation. Each of you could probably list as well as I the hundreds of ways he influenced our community. But for me, and for thousands upon thousands of LGBT North Carolinians, he will be remembered for changing our lives, for making this state a friendlier, more tolerant place to live.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lying with Statistics; Now, Let's look for Solutions

Were you as stunned as I was to learn earlier this year that North Carolina's high school graduation rate was 69%? For years we'd been told, by state leaders, that the graduation rate was around 90%. That's some disparity. Twenty percentage points difference between what was being reported and the reality of the situation is inexcusable.

However, it will do no one any good to point fingers at state leaders. The responsible course of action is to search for solutions and fix the problem

The News and Observer reports that 50% of African-American men who enter the 9th grade DO NOT graduate four years later. Unbelievable. And our state's pitiful graduation rate costs the taxpayers $169 million per year, according to a report conducted by the Friedman Foundation. Our state's legislature needs to get serious about fixing this problem. It's bad for our kids, it's bad for our economy, and North Carolina will never truly be a world class place to live if our education system is second rate.

Here's a link to the N&O article. I think you'll be as disturbed by

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Best Supporters a Candidate Could Hope For

Below is the text of an email that I sent some of my LGBT supporters yesterday to let them know that I would be suspending my run for the NC State Senate.

'Tomorrow the newspapers will report that my State Senator, Ellie Kinnaird, has changed her mind and intends to run for re-election after all. Yep, she's running again.

I'm still reeling from the news. I--and many of you---have put a great deal of effort into this campaign. And we were on our way toward building the strongest legislative campaign this district has ever seen. But I will not be running against Senator Kinnaird.

As disappointing as this development is, it's important to keep our eyes on the prize and remember that our time will come.

So, what's going to happen next? My awesome campaign manager, Alex Miller, and I have decided to suspend the campaign rather than dismantle it completely. If circumstances change again in the next couple of months, we want to be able to hit the ground running. While we won't be doing any more fundraising or planning, we will keep the campaign infrastructure intact until the dust settles. In politics, anything can happen.

Alex and I have many decisions to make in the coming weeks. A letter will be going out to all of our donors in the next few days explaining the situation. In the meantime, I wanted you all to know immediately.

You've been wonderful to me during this campaign. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your support, kind words, guidance, and willingness to roll up your sleeves and do some heavy lifting.

If I'm disappointed about Senator Kinnaird's decision, it's not so much because I won't be running this year. But rather it's because so many of you had done so much. I know you want to see more openly gay state legislators. And I know I'll be able to count on you next time around.

In the mean time I encourage you to support, as I do, the campaigns of either one of our two gay men running for state-wide office this year: John Arrowood, who's running for the NC Court of Appeals, and Jim Neal who is running for the US Senate. Just having these two men in the race, shows how much North Carolina has changed.

Thank you again for being the best group of supporters a candidate could ever hope for."

Indy Endorsements

I just recieved the new Independent; their endorsements are out. Here they are:

Carrboro: Chilton, Broun, Coleman, and Lavelle
Chapel Hill: Foy, Greene, Hill, Strom and Ward
Hillsborough: Hallman, Lloyd, and Warren
Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools: Bedford, Streater, Burroughs, and Wallach

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

News from the State Senate Campaign

Today Senator Kinnaird announced that she's changed her mind and will be running for re-election after all.

Senator Ellie Kinnaird is a life-long champion of progressive causes. In her distinguished career she has fought tirelessly on the side of issues important to her constituents and the state of North Carolina. Her determination has inspired many to fight for justice and shown that no one political party has a monopoly on “values.”

I have enjoyed serving along side her as together we’ve fought for those same values. Given our shared goals and interests, I was pleased to learn that Sen. Kinnaird has chosen to run for re-election to the North Carolina Senate.

With that news, I will suspend my own candidacy for the North Carolina Senate. While I’m disappointed that I will no longer be a candidate for the seat she now holds, I’m confident the progressive causes I care so much about will continue to be championed under her leadership and that we will continue to work together as we have in the past.

Meanwhile, I will continue to serve the citizens of Orange County as their Commissioner. I remain grateful and honored for the trust the people of Orange County have shown by electing me. Our county faces many challenges, and I will continue to provide strong, compassionate leadership for all Orange County citizens.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Waste Transfer Station

You may recall reading that the Orange County Democratic Party Executive Committee passed a resolution asking the Board of County Commissioners to reconsider the vote to site a waste transfer station on Eubanks Rd.

My response to that resolution is posted below.

To the Executive Committee the Orange County Democratic Party:

Thank you very much for the resolution you passed on September 20th about the transfer station issue. You have taken this issue up in a serious, principled way, and as grassroots leaders in the Democratic Party, your voice and perspective are powerful. It’s important for those of us on the Board of County Commissioners to hear from and listen to the community.

You asked the County Board of Commissioners to reconsider our decision to site the transfer station at the Eubanks Road location. I support your request.

While the actual transfer station itself is not a dump, it does attract the stigma of a dump and has the unmistakable stench of environmental racism. The responsible course of action is to seek an alternative solution.

Additionally, it must be acknowledged that the manner in which the search was handled was flawed. By not conducting a thorough and transparent search, the BoCC reinforced the community’s fears. This was a mistake; we can, and should, do better here in Orange County.

Again, I thank you for your resolution and your dedication to social and environmental justice here in Orange County. I’ve learned from your input and hope that the Democratic Party always feels comfortable approaching us with its thoughts.

Best Wishes,

Mike Nelson

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

No more Lip Service to Social Justice

As a follow up to yesterday's post, today I'd like to address the issue of social justice and political decision-making.

As I've reflected on the whole transfer station question, I've become more and more convinced of several key points:

A. The County erred by not conducting a thorough search for a transfer station site.

B. There should have been a clear set of criteria.

C. The criteria should have included social and environmental justice.

I'm committed to insisting that social justice be a criterion in all future county decision-making processes. Should it be the only criteria? No. Should history, past experience, and justice be factored into a decision? Yes.

In short, I think the critics are right when they point out that there was a failure to weigh social justice as an important community value. Had there been a true set of criteria for a search, and had a thorough search been conducted, I believe social justice would have been one of the criteria. But we'll never know because there wasn't...

But we can make sure we do better in the future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Trash Talk

The general public has been very vocal about Orange County's decision to site a waste transfer station on Eubanks Road. The concerns, of course, are that the current landfill has been in operation on Eubanks Road since the 1970's. Siting the transfer station there means that the same group of neighbors will continue to bear the burden of dealing with the trash the rest of us produce.

In the 1990's I opposed siting a new landfill in that neighborhood because I believed it was unjust to expect one community to deal for another 30 years with a new landfill. The Roger's Road neighbors are largely African-American and of modest means. I believed then, and believe now, that one landfill for 30+ years was enough.

I also opposed the Board of Commissioner's decision in the early part of this decade to ship our waste out of county. Let's be honest here, shipping our waste to another community in another part of the state creates an environmental justice concern as well. It may be politically easy, but is it right? Our garbage will most likely be going to some poor, predominantly minority community in Eastern NC or Southeastern VA.

I believe we here in Orange County need to take a step back and reassess our commitment to social and environmental justice. Are we effectively factoring social justice into our criteria when decisions such as these are made? What weight do we give social justice concerns? Is social justice the MOST important criteria or is it one of several we take into consideration?

Let's take a step back and examine these questions in a proactive manner. The public input on the County's transfer station decision has been an important catalyst in getting the community's attention. It's time to have an honest discussion amongst ourselves, as one community, about what social justice means to us.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thirteen years on

Yesterday, October 11th, marked the 13th anniversary of the enactment of Carrboro's domestic partnership ordinances. The Board of Aldermen passed 2 ordinances that a) extended health insurance coverage to the domestic partners of town employees and b) established a registry so Carrboro citizens could register their partnerships.

In passing those ordinances, Carrboro became the first local government in the South to pass such ordinances.

I've been reflecting on the passage of those historic ordinances the past few days. Boy, things have changed. Back in 1994 hardly anyone even knew what a domestic partner was. To the average person, it sounded vaguely like some sort of maid service!

But today, 13 years on, domestic partnerships have become the moderate position (compared to marriage, for example). Even many Republicans now support extending benefits to domestic partners.

As I look back, I'm very proud of the work we did in Carrboro to push the debate forward. When I first raised this issue, in my first year as an Aldermen, I wasn't sure what the public reaction would be. But we were able to use the proposals to start a conversation with the community about the meaning of family. What is a gay or lesbian family? How are gay families different from straight families? How are they the same?

Frankly, most people--even in enlightened Carrboro--hadn't thought much about the topic. The conversation we started with the community about family, about domestic partners, served a valuable purpose as we got the general population to think about these issues for the first time.

I can't help but chuckle as I recall that the first couple in Carrboro to register their partnership was, ironically, a straight couple--Chuck Morton and Wendy Wenck. And Chuck is now a candidate for Mayor!

And so it goes....

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Equality Gala

Please plan on attending the Equality NC Conference and Gala on November 3rd. Additional information can be found below.

Equality NC, of which I am board chair, is North Carolina's only statewide groups working for LGBT rights. We lobby the state legislature, educate the general public, endorse candidates and so forth. Our conference and GALA feature some excellent speakers including my buddy Neil Guiliano who I first met when he was the openly gay Republican mayor of Tempe Arizona. He now serves as Executive Director of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). He's a great speaker and great leader. Joining Neil is Patricia Todd, the first openly lesbian member of the Alabama State Legislature.

Click below for the full event schedule:

Registration and Sponsorships
Click here to learn more about registration options and to sign up:

Click here to see our latest sponsor list:

Friday, October 05, 2007

More on 20 Years of Change

Yesterday, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of Joe Herzenberg's history-making election to the Chapel Hill Town Council. Following in Joe's footsteps have been a number of successful openly gay or lesbian candidates for office in Orange County. Without Joe breaking through that barrier, the road would have been longer for the rest of us.

But what about the issues? How do we stand under the law? And what about attitudes, have they changed?

Let's start with the easier of the two, issues. Beginning in the early 1990's there was a consistent march towards equal treatment under the law in Orange County. Carrboro added sexual orientation to it's non-discrimination policy in 1991 or 1992. Then in 1994, after I was elected to the Board of Aldermen, Carrboro became the first municipality in the South to provide domestic health benefits to the domestic partners of it's employees. We were the first to treat all families equally, regardless of what how that family was defined.

Chapel Hill followed suit about a year later, and Orange County didn't get it's act together until 2004 or 05.

It's hard to overestate the importance of these changes as they effected more than just a few families in a couple of relatively small towns in central North Carolina. We were part of the beginning of a movement, a movement to halt discrimination against lesbian and gay families. At the time few people understood that if you offer family health benefits to one class of people (straight) but not to another (LGBT), you are discriminating.

Now, 15 years later, there is generally support in the US for domestic partner or civil union legislation. But thirteen years ago, the night the Board of Aldermen passed the South's first domestic partner program in a room full of lesbian, gay, and progresive activists, it was inconceivable to us that the rest of the country would catch up so quickly.

in my next post, I'll address the tougher question: have attitudes changed? How much have they changed?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Twenty Years Later

It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years.

In November 1987 Joe Herzenberg was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council, becoming North Carolina's first openly gay elected official. And the first in the South. As I recall there were less than two dozen openly gay or lesbian elected offiicials in the entire country at that time. Once again, Chapel Hill led the way in social and political change.

I was Joe's campaign manager that year. We put together the strongest grassroots campaign that Chapel Hill had seen in some time. Our volunteers knocked on doors in every neighborhood in town. Joe himself knocked on thousands of doors. The voters responded quite favorably to Joe's progressive message and hands-on, man-of-the-people style. Joe handily won election that year..

I was still in college and volunteering for the Orange County Democratic Party and local candidates when Joe asked me to manage his campaign. It's safe to say that I learned more managing that campaign than in any course I took in college (sorry UNC!). Joe was--and is--a great mentor.

And 20 years later, we can reflect on the changes Joe started. Since his historic election, Orange County has elected a second openly gay member of the Chapel Hill Town Council (Mark Kleinschmidt), a lesbian to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education (Gloria Faley), a gay Mayor in Carrboro (me), and most recently an openly gay member County Commissioner (also me). We now stand poised to elected our first lesbian to a municipal position in Orange County, Lydia Lavelle, who's running a very strong campaign for Carrboro Board of Aldermen.

And, if I succeed in my bid for the State Senate, I'll become the first openly gay man to serve in the North Carolina state legislature. Orange County continues to lead the way when it comes to social and political change in the South.

We owe the voters of this community a debt of gratitude for being progressive enough to open the door to Joe Herzenberg in 1987. And the LGBT community owes Joe Herzenberg a debt of gratitude for leading the way and creating possibility for the next generation of leaders.

Thanks, Joe! It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Time Flies


I looked at this blog this morning and realized that I hadn't posted since September 21st. Partly, this hiatus was because I was out of town at a training in Portland, OR. But mainly, I simply got out of the habit of writing every day.

Back to work....

Last night I attended a wonderful fundraiser in Chapel Hill for NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina. NARAL, as many of you probably know, is the nations premier advocacy organization working to protect a woman's right to choose.

I'm a proud supporter of NARAL, and have been for 20 years. Who would have thought, 20 years, ago that we'd still be fighting this battle? That we'd have a Supreme Court teetering on the edge of rolling back a woman's right to choose? That 30% of the pharmacies in North Carolina would refuse to order emergency contraception (EC)?

The work of NARAL and other pro-choice organizations is as important now as it's ever been. Here's the link to NARAL ProChoice North Carolina. Please consider donating to their efforts to protect a woman's right to make decisions about her own body.