Twenty Years Later
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.