Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Joe Herzenberg had a big voice.
Booming across the sidewalk on Franklin Street or over the phone line, he could get your attention with a bit of political news, a funny story, a short lesson in local history. And he was always good for a little gossip.
He didn't hold a conventional job for most of his adulthood, but he chose a giant task for his life's work: to use his voice to fight against injustice and bigotry and fight for civil rights, both in his hometown of Chapel Hill and nationally.
In 1964, he joined the voter-registration drives for African Americans in rural Mississippi—a potentially life-threatening decision for a white, homosexual, liberal, Jewish Yankee back then.
In 1984, he landed squarely in the sights of Jesse Helms' hate machine, when his participation in Jim Hunt's U.S. Senate campaign generated harassment and threats from many sources, including a Chatham County newspaperman who made it his mission to attack Herzenberg and his partner, Lightning Brown.
Closer to home, he became North Carolina's—and some say, the South's—first openly gay elected official. He was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1981 and then won a seat in 1987. He was re-elected in 1991 but stepped down after pleading guilty to failing to pay his state income taxes—a mistake he took responsibility for and overcame, playing a prominent part in local grassroots politics in the years since.
Along the way, Herzenberg shared his voluminous knowledge and razor-sharp insight with anyone who'd take the time to listen. He became a mentor and role model for a new generation of local, young progressive leaders, both gay and straight.
Over nearly four decades in Chapel Hill, he stayed involved in all the good fights (and started a few of his own): advocating for non-discrimination policies that covered sexual orientation, defending the privacy rights of public-housing tenants, opposing anti-panhandling laws, helping draft the state's first tree protections, pushing for creation of municipal greenways and a historic preservation district.
Through it all, Herzenberg maintained a Southern gentility that belied his New Jersey roots. He was a master at the art of the postcard, penning little notes of encouragement or thanks and signing them with a trademark flourish whenever the occasion called for it—which was often.
He knew everyone on Franklin Street, not just at businesses like his beloved Pepper's Pizza, but also the folks for whom the street was home.
In a few weeks, we will publish our annual Indy Citizen Awards, a tradition born, like the paper, in 1983. Every November, we honor individuals and groups around the Triangle whose "acts of conscience and sacrifice" make our community better. In 1984, we recognized Joe Herzenberg for speaking out against "political terrorism." Twenty-three years later, we mourn the silencing of his powerful voice.
Joe Herzenberg, 1989
With the death of Joe Herzenberg on Oct. 28, Chapel Hill has lost a true political hero, and one of its most caring, kind, and generous lights.
His victory in 1987 as the first openly gay man elected to public office in the South inspired countless future leaders. He championed progressive causes throughout his life, starting with his civil rights work in Mississippi during the 1960’s. Joe went to Mississippi as a Freedom Summer volunteer in 1964, and worked to register black voters who had been denied their democratic rights.
“Participating in the Freedom Summer was not a casual decision…gay Jewish Yankees from Yale were being murdered by the cops in Mississippi,” said Mark Chilton, one of Joe’s political protégés and the current mayor of Carrboro. "I remember him telling me about how the local county boards of election would refuse to let them have copies of the voter registration rolls." The volunteers sat in the election board offices and copied the voter registration lists by hand.
In 1969, Joe came to Chapel Hill as a graduate student and soon began working to elect progressives in North Carolina. Joe helped register thousands of students in Chapel Hill to vote for the 1972 elections. He served as campaign manager for Gerry Cohen, who in 1973 became the first graduate student to win a seat on the town’s Board of Aldermen.
And then Joe was defeated in his first campaign for a Board seat in 1979. Later that year, Joe was appointed to fill Cohen’s unexpired term as Alderman, when Cohen stepped down to run for Mayor. He would lose his race for re-election in 1981, the same year his partner, Lightning Brown, also ran unsuccessfully for the Board. Joe lost another bid in 1985, but he wouldn't give up. He finally returned to the (re-named) Town Council through his victorious campaign in 1987.
“Not many among us could have summoned the energy — the courage, really — for a fourth run at the town council,” said Matt Stiegler, attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “Joe did.”
Joe on North Street in Chapel Hill, 1991
Seeking public office as a gay man in the South, at the time, was a very courageous act. Less than a year before Joe's first campaign, on November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was assassinated in City Hall after only 11 months in office. Harvey Milk was a hero to Joe Herzenberg, and in turn, Joe became one to a new generation of progressive activists and politicians in North Carolina – gay, lesbian, and straight.
Mark Kleinschmidt, director of the Fair Trial Initiative and a current member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, credits Joe as his inspiration for entering politics.
"I just got off the phone with a friend in California," said Kleinschmidt. "My friend and I both arrived in Chapel Hill as UNC freshmen almost 20 years ago. Both of us had grown up in small North Carolina towns. Upon arrival, we learned about a man who just a year earlier had dared to honestly present himself to his community as an openly gay man and at the same time ask this same community to elect him to office. No one had successfully attempted such an audacious political act. During our conversation, my friend and I both confessed that it was the moment we heard about this guy that we knew we had found our 'home town.'"
“His election twenty years ago…changed the South,” said Mike Nelson, Orange County Commissioner and former mayor of Carrboro, who was Joe’s campaign manager in 1987 and the first openly gay mayor in N.C. “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 U.S. Senate in North Carolina.”
I think I first met Joe in 1990 as a UNC undergrad. We shared mutual interests in Democratic politics, the local political scene, and of course, voter registration. Joe was thrilled at the idea of trying to re-awaken the sleeping student vote in Chapel Hill. He encouraged me at every turn to make it happen. With his help, we registered over 15,000 students to vote on campus during the early to mid-90’s, plus 10,000 more statewide.
We also bonded over my home state of Rhode Island. Joe spent part of almost every summer vacationing with his family on Block Island, a beautiful, unspoiled little island off the coast of Southern RI that he loved.
Like many who knew him, I have a small collection of postcards that Joe sent me over the years. His handwritten gestures followed me wherever I moved.
Joe befriended and mentored young people in this town. It was a part of who he was, like his thoughtful postcards. And he kept up his interest even after most of us graduated and drifted away from Chapel Hill.
He didn’t like e-mail or computers. Dubbed the "Mayor of Franklin Street," Joe liked walking around town and talking to people. He was old fashioned and very human.
Joe made me aware of the example set by civil rights activist Allard Lowenstein, a kindred spirit who, like Joe, had a flair for inspiring the young, worked tirelessly for progressive causes, and shared Chapel Hill ties. Both Joe and Allard Lowenstein are near the top of my list of all time heroes, and I think it’s fitting that one introduced me to the other.
When Joe believed in something, he put his energy, resources, and spirit behind it. And it was infectious. His enthusiasm and sense of the possible about doing good in local politics got me and plenty of others involved.
In 1992, Joe was a founding board member of Pride PAC, a statewide lesbian and gay political action committee now named Equality NC. Its work has helped elect a string of out and gay-friendly officials in North Carolina, including State Senator Julia Boseman, the state’s first openly lesbian legislator.
Joe found himself targeted by Jesse Helms’ hatemongering when he and his partner vocally campaigned for Gov. Jim Hunt against Helms during their hard fought 1984 Senate race. In one memorable televised debate, Helms gay-baited Hunt by thundering, “You’re supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown!”
Posing as reporters for the black and gay press, right-wing Helms fanatics made and taped phone calls to gay activists around the country who were backing Hunt. Articles based on distorted excerpts from the phone calls were then published in issues of The Landmark, a conservative Chatham County newspaper.
Headlines screaming “Jim Hunt Is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate," and asking, “Is Jim Hunt homosexual?...Is he AC and DC?” appeared throughout 1984 in The Landmark. Funded by shadowy Helms backers, hundreds of thousands of free copies of the paper were distributed around the state, particularly in rural areas.
Joe and Lightning were the smear campaign’s N.C. poster children. According to Lightning, one caller "asked about my fund raising for Hunt. The details ended up in The Landmark right away - it was frightening." Joe and Lightning each received one of the Independent Weekly’s first Citizen Awards that year, for speaking out against “political terrorism.”
"I think gay political people elsewhere in the country think we are so brave down here having to deal with Jesse Helms," Herzenberg said. "But I've never met Jesse Helms. He doesn't live in my town. Really, life isn't so difficult here in North Carolina."
- Joe, characteristically modest, as quoted in the Chapel Hill News, April 12, 2002.
Joe in Chapel Hill, 1991
Joe crusaded to elect Democratic candidates to office, from the local to national level. He personally provided crucial early financial, organizational, and moral support for countless progressive campaigns in N.C.
One prominent example was when Joe backed former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt for the Democratic Senate nomination in 1990. At the time, the party establishment was lined up behind Mike Easley, then a little known Eastern N.C. prosecutor. Easley’s chief qualification among party insiders for taking on Jesse Helms seemed to be that unlike Gantt, his platform was more middle of the road than inspiring, and he wasn’t black.
And in 1998, Joe was a very early backer of John Edwards’ populist, outsider Senate campaign, despite the overwhelming support by Chapel Hill political elites for UNC Vice President D.G. Martin.
“In primaries, always vote your heart. You will have plenty of time to vote your head in the general election.”
- political advice from Joe in the 1980's, as remembered by Mark Donahue
The list of local, progressive elected officials whose campaigns Joe helped or mentored is lengthy, but some notable ones are Mike Nelson, current Orange County commissioner and former mayor of Carrboro; Ellie Kinnaird, also a former mayor of Carrboro and current N.C. State Senator; Mark Chilton, current mayor of Carrboro, and the first undergraduate student ever elected to a town council seat in Chapel Hill; and current Chapel Hill Town Council members Mark Kleinschmidt and Sally Greene.
Before coming to North Carolina, Joe served as chair of the history department at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi.
Nov. 15, 2007 resolution honoring Joe issued by Tougaloo College
He was keenly aware of how history shapes the present day, and fought to have the town of Chapel Hill do more to recognize the contributions made by some of its overlooked citizens.
Joe urged us to remember people like Samuel Phillips, one of the state's leading Radical Republicans, who prosecuted the KKK as a federal attorney during Reconstruction and was appointed Solicitor General by President Grant.
And John Dunne, Patrick Cusick, and Quinton Baker, leaders of the local civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Their story is told in John Ehle’s long out of print book The Free Men, recently reissued in paperback, which documents the gripping events of this turbulent, too-often glossed over chapter in Chapel Hill’s past.
"At some point in the future ... there ought to be some official town notice of the three main leaders of the civil rights leaders in Chapel Hill: John Dunne, Pat Cusick and Quinton Baker. They did back in 1963 and 1964 what very few citizens of our town were willing to do, unfortunately, which was to stand up for what was right," he said. "They deserve some acknowledgment."
- Joe speaking before the Chapel Hill Town Council, as quoted in the Chapel Hill News, March 29, 2006
Looking back on the conversations we had, I think about all the places around town I remember talking or having lunch with him. I loved talking with Joe. Besides his always perceptive take and inside dope on the latest political news, he was full of personal stories - about his adventures growing up in Franklin, New Jersey (where his father owned the local drug store), living and working in Mississippi during the 60’s, and what Chapel Hill was like in the 70’s and 80’s. He was our resident wise man.
"It is very important, when running a government, to know what happened the day before yesterday or the year before last."
- Joe on Nov. 4, 1991, the day before he was re-elected to office with the highest vote total of any Chapel Hill Town Council member
Herzenberg family drug store, Franklin NJ, 1950's
I’ve been numb ever since I first heard the news yesterday morning. The last time I saw and spoke with Joe was at the grocery store. We talked for a while, first walking the aisles, then I followed him outside and said goodbye when his faithful friend and caregiver Kathie Young pulled the car around. I realized from what he told me how close he’d come to death about a year ago. But he looked much better.
I regret not seeing more of Joe over these past couple of years. I’m mad that he’s left us too early. I’m sorry he got so sick, but I remember him full of life and laughter. I’ll miss him. He devoted his life to standing up for equality and justice, and everyone who believes in these ideals will miss Joe, too.
Memorial shrine to Joe at Margaret's Cantina in Chapel Hill, November 2007. Photo by Ruby Sinreich.
By Samuel Spies, Staff Writer
CHAPEL HILL -- Sitting in a county board of elections office in Mississippi in 1964, Joe Herzenberg got an early taste of grass-roots political activism.
"I remember him telling me about how the local county boards of election would refuse to let them have copies of the voter registration rolls," said Mark Chilton, mayor of Carrboro and a longtime friend.
So the volunteers for Freedom Summer, a voter-registration effort, sat and copied the lists.
"Joe was one of the scriveners, if you will, for that project," Chilton said. Herzenberg also walked through neighborhoods and encouraged people to register to vote. "He was a white gay Jewish Yankee who went to Mississippi to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer."
Herzenberg died Sunday. He was 66.
The first openly gay elected official in North Carolina, and some say in the South, he left an indelible mark on Chapel Hill and its politics, and mentored a generation of local politicians and activists.
"He's part of the reason that Chapel Hill became my hometown," said Mark Kleinschmidt, a Town Council member. "You look around this community, you just see his fingerprints on everything that makes this community such a nice place to live."
Herzenberg had been ill for several years, friend Kathie Young said. He died at UNC Hospitals of complications from diabetes, surrounded by friends and his rabbi.
Young and others remember his insightful intellect and warm sense of humor. "We spent our life together being a family in an untraditional sense of the word," Young said. "He could be so cranky, such a curmudgeon, but the relationship we had was nothing but love."
Commonly seen at Pepper's Pizza, Herzenberg loved food and literature, often giving friends books from his extensive library. His favorite meal was Sunday brunch at Crook's Corner, lawyer Matt Stiegler said. Several of Herzenberg's friends gathered there Sunday to celebrate his life.
"There was a lot about Joe that was quirky. That I know of, he never owned a car," Stiegler said. "He sort of personally resented the idea of ever having to leave Chapel Hill."
Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941. His father owned a drugstore in Franklin, N.J., where Herzenberg grew up, according to an obituary prepared by his friends.
While a college student at Yale, he made the civil rights trip.
"He didn't move to New York and make a lot of money and complain with his friends over cocktails about the plight of poor people in the South," Kleinschmidt said. "... He was an activist in the real sense of the word: He was active."
Herzenberg moved to Chapel Hill to continue his studies. He first ran for Town Council in 1979, and though unsuccessful was appointed to fill a vacancy until 1981, his friends said. He campaigned persistently for election, finally winning in 1987.
"Joe was a historian. He more than any of us was aware that his election was of historic significance, but that it was not the beginning of a revolution, not the end, but one small piece of a larger journey," said Mike Nelson, an Orange County commissioner who also is gay. "Really what it did for the rest of us was give us hope."
Kleinschmidt called Herzenberg a personal hero to him as a young gay man thinking of entering politics. "Because of the legacy that he has left, I am fortunate enough to have a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council," he said.
Herzenberg's career as an elected official ended in 1993 after a tax scandal. Though he remained on the council for about a year after pleading guilty to not paying state taxes, colleagues asked him to resign. Faced with the threat of a recall election, he did so.
"He was disappointed and embarrassed. But he didn't let [it] get him down, and he didn't stop being involved in his community," Nelson said. "I think that's a great tribute to him, that he kept going."
Friends said Herzenberg's legacy includes not only work on lesbian and gay issues, but also for racial justice, affordable housing and the environment.
Herzenberg is survived by a brother, Bob Herzenberg. He will be cremated and his ashes buried in New Jersey, Young said.
Kathie Young & Joe, New Year’s Eve, 1978.
In a spiffed-up, buttoned-down Chapel Hill some UNC graduates would hardly recognize, Joe Herzenberg was a touchstone.
He earned a footnote in history as a Chapel Hill council member -- the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina and in the South.
But for true Chapel Hillians, he symbolized what the town was really about: a place where a Jewish boy from New Jersey, a civil rights crusader, could make a life and never feel the need to leave.
In fact, he seldom did.
Once a year, he went to Rhode Island. But he told me he was always glad to get home, to get back to Franklin Street.
He spent part of every day, in his big floppy hat, walking Chapel Hill's main drag, stopping to chat, waving at passers-by as if he were in a parade.
If it's possible to be a moving fixture, he was it.
Before I knew Herzenberg well, I would stop occasionally to offer him a ride, remembering that he didn't own a car. He always politely declined. I realized later that he was connecting with his public.
When I was hired by The News & Observer to cover Orange County, Herzenberg was my ace in the hole.
If I needed the background on a thorny issue (albeit with that lefty Herzenberg spin), I would call. If I needed sources, he would suggest some. If I needed help to sort through the baloney, he would oblige.
Sometimes I would call Herzenberg before 9 a.m. (he was not an early riser) just to get his answering machine.
The message, in his loud, quirky voice, made me smile:
"Leave messages for Joe Herzenberg, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Orange County Democratic Party, the so-and-so for such-and-such office campaign ... and Harriet Levy."
Harriet was his cat.
He always called back. And he always had something interesting to say.
An historian who never completed his dissertation, he read voraciously and kept up with the news, official and otherwise.
Fifteen years before we learned about foot-tapping in a Minneapolis airport restroom, he urged me to write a book about closeted Republicans.
He had a starter list.
Herzenberg had friends of all ages, from the kids at Pepper's Pizza to the most esteemed Carolina deans. That's how he stayed so plugged in.
If it was happening in Chapel Hill, he knew about it, and he had an opinion about it.
That was my first clue something was wrong when I called him last week to hear his thoughts on Senate candidate Jim Neal, a Chapel Hill financier who is gay.
Herzenberg told me he didn't know anything about Neal.
I hadn't realized Herzenberg had been sick. I wrote him a letter the next day. It was still sitting on my desk when I got news of his death.
In recent years, Herzenberg and I had exchanged cards at the holidays, but little more.
When my sons were born, he surprised me by sending beautiful hardcover versions of such childhood favorites as "Harold and the Purple Crayon" and "The Little Engine That Could."
That they are dog-eared now would make him happy, I think.
They were classics.
He was an original.
He will be sorely missed.
Joe and Kathie Young on Halloween, 2005.
Everyone knew Joe. Joe knew everyone.
If ever there was a man about town, particularly downtown, Joe Herzenberg was the guy. He lived downtown and, it seemed that every day, he walked through it. He'd chat with the flower ladies, stop at Pepper's Pizza, grab a hamburger at Crook's Corner, talk to everyone as he made his way down Franklin Street.
Herzenberg, who died over the weekend at the age of 66, was in some ways the antithesis of the average Chapel Hillian, whatever that may be.
He was intentionally car-less and walked everywhere. His everyday costume was a combination of New York hipster and backwoods farmer. In the land of the svelte and athletic, he was anything but.
But no one loved Chapel Hill more than he did, no one cared about Chapel Hill and its future more than Joe Herzenberg cared.
Herzenberg will be recalled for being the first openly gay official in the state and one of the first anywhere, during a time when being gay was less accepted than it is now. He will probably most be remembered for his diligent service on the Chapel Hill Town Council beginning in the late 1980s and for how that service ended, as he was forced to resign when it became public that he had not paid his state income taxes for several years.
But the scandal and his resignation did not diminish his love for his adopted hometown or his involvement in our civic affairs. Rather than hide in the corner, he admitted his indiscretions, apologized for them, and stayed involved in our affairs. He served on local boards and mentored young politicians. He continued to work for civil rights and for peace and justice. He continued to be, particularly on Franklin Street, a presence.
A few years ago the Town Council created a committee to study the then-contentious idea of renaming Airport Road for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It appointed officials to the committee as well as Airport Road residents and members of the local branch of the NAACP. It also named to the committee Joe Herzenberg, as a "citizen-at-large."
Joe Herzenberg, a longtime activist and the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina, died Sunday. He was 66. Herzenberg had been ill for several years, his friend Kathie Young told The [Raleigh] News & Observer. He died at the University of North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill of complications from diabetes.
Herzenberg moved to Chapel Hill after graduating from Yale in the 1970s. He unsuccessfully ran for town council in 1979 but was appointed to a vacancy through 1981. He kept campaigning until he won in 1987.
Mark Kleinschmidt, a current town council member, told The News & Observer that when he was a young gay man eyeing the political arena, he considered Herzenberg his personal hero. "He's part of the reason that Chapel Hill became my hometown," he said. "You look around this community, you just see his fingerprints on everything that makes this community such a nice place to live."
Herzenberg left the town council in 1993 after neglecting to pay state taxes, a charge for which he pleaded guilty.
Herzenberg is survived by a brother, Bob Herzenberg. He will be cremated, and his ashes will be buried in New Jersey, Young said.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
North Carolina's first openly gay elected official has died. Joe Herzenberg of Chapel Hill died Sunday at the age of 66.
Friends say Herzenberg first ran for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 and was appointed to a position there two years later. He finally won an election to the position in 1987.
Mark Kleinschmidt is a Chapel Hill Town Council member who is also gay. He says Herzenberg is a personal hero whose legacy helped other gays enter and succeed in politics.
Joe in 2000, as featured in Out and Elected in the U.S.A. photo exhibit
By: Max Rose, Staff Writer
When openly gay politician Ernie Fleming ran for Warren County commissioner last year, the local newspaper ran an editorial that warned of a "moral tsunami."
But that did not prevent Fleming from being elected.
For years, Joe Herzenberg was the only openly gay elected official in North Carolina, but after his Sunday death, many still follow the road he paved.
"(Herzenberg) pried that door open and kept that open by himself in order to keep alive the promise of full participation," Chapel Hill Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt said. "He made it possible to get enough people that it's never going to close again."
In 1987 Herzenberg became the first openly gay elected official in the Carolinas, said Denis Dison, spokesman for Victory Fund, a national organization that helps get gay and lesbian candidates elected.
Now there are at least six gay elected officials in the state, including Kleinschmidt and Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson.
Herzenberg died Sunday in Chapel Hill at age 66, but his impact extends beyond the town's borders.
Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, was the first openly gay state senator in North Carolina, and openly gay people also have been elected in and Cabarrus County and Boone.
"We've seen people getting elected in areas that are not liberal bastions, and I think that's an indication that voters are willing to look beyond a voter's sexual orientation," said Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina.
Two gay candidates are running in 2008 for statewide office in North Carolina. Jim Neal is a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and John Arrowood is running for the Court of Appeals.
"Joe Herzenberg was an inspiration to everyone who is interested in making our society a better place to live," Neal stated in an e-mail. "He was one of those leaders who broke down barriers."
But openly gay candidates sometimes still have difficulty getting voters to look past sexual orientation.
Dison said 25 percent to 30 percent of voters will not vote for an openly gay candidate, according to a Victory Fund national survey.
"There are still a lot of people who will immediately discount you when they learn of your sexual orientation," Dison said. "The people you see who do get elected typically run perfect campaigns."
Still, the number of openly gay leaders continues to increase. Victory Fund is endorsing 71 gay candidates in 2007, including Carrboro alderman candidate Lydia Lavelle.
Lavelle received financial support from Herzenberg for her campaign.
Her partner, Alicia Stemper, said sexual orientation has not been an issue in the alderman race.
"That she is able to mention that she has a partner and raising children without worrying that it will pull the campaign off message is such a luxury," Stemper said.
Dison said that while some gay officials, work actively for equal rights, others show their colleagues that they are not the stereotype.
"Being out is perhaps the most powerful statement that anyone can make because it forces people to look at you for who you are," he said. "It changes hearts and minds."
Herzenberg encouraged Kleinschmidt to run for town council, and it became a ritual for interested candidates to speak to Herzenberg before filing.
"He is a model which I try to emulate," Kleinschmidt said. "I think that's true for most every politician in Chapel Hill, straight or gay."
Joe & Bill Strom at Joe's Stonewall party, 2004.
By: Sara Gregory, Assistant City Editor
Joe Herzenberg sent his friends hundreds of postcards.
The longtime Chapel Hill resident sent the notes from his home and his travels: a photo on one side and on the back, a few funny observations or words of support.
"He's the only person who sent me postcards," said Chapel Hill Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt, a friend of Herzenberg's. "He would sometimes send postcards with just a simple thought or idea to remind us what was important. It was just this charming way of conveying a message."
Friends said Monday they will miss Herzenberg and his postcards. The civil rights activist and the first openly gay elected official in the Carolinas died about 6 p.m. Sunday at UNC Hospitals. He was 66 years old.
Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris and Margaret Herzenberg, and grew up in New Jersey.
He received a bachelor's degree from Yale University in 1963. After graduating, Herzenberg was one of the nearly 1,000 student volunteers who went to Mississippi to register black voters during Freedom Summer in 1964.
Herzenberg then joined the faculty of Tougaloo College, an historically black university, where he served as chairman of the history department. The Delta Sigma Theta sorority named him an honorary member while he taught at Tougaloo.
"He had fond memories of teaching there," Kleinschmidt said. "He thought of that as one of his great achievements in his life."
Herzenberg came to Chapel Hill as a graduate student in history at UNC.
In 1979, he led his first campaign for Chapel Hill Town Council and lost. Herzenberg was appointed to the seat vacated mid-term by Gerry Cohen, but failed to win re-election in 1981. He lost a third attempt for the council in 1983.
Friends said they will remember his determination to fight for progressive issues.
"He really set the bar for infusing our public policy decisions with progressive values and his commitment to civil rights and fairness and equality," Kleinschmidt said. "He found a role for those decisions in all that the town does."
Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson managed Herzenberg's first successful attempt in 1987.
Nelson, who was the first openly gay elected Mayor of Carrboro before serving on the board of commissioners, was a student when he campaigned with Herzenberg.
Nelson met Herzenberg in 1983 at the Henderson Street Bar and said it was exciting to be involved with the successful campaign.
"Joe and our volunteers knocked on virtually every door in Chapel Hill," Nelson said. "We put together an extraordinary grassroots effort."
On the council, Herzenberg was responsible for the creation of the town's greenway system and the enactment of the tree protection ordinance.
"You look around Chapel Hill and you see his fingerprints on anything that's worth anything here," Kleinschmidt said.
He also was a mentor to many UNC students who later went on to elected offices in Orange County. Kleinschmidt, Nelson and Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton were supported by Herzenberg when they ran for office.
"I remember how excited he was whenever I told him I wanted to pursue getting a seat on the council," Kleinschmidt said. "He taught me not just how to fight for the things I cared about, but also how to be effective with the people I was serving."
Chilton was a student when he first ran for a spot on the Chapel Hill Town Council. He and Herzenberg both ran in 1991, and Chilton said Herzenberg became a key adviser.
"Joe was a real important figure in Chapel Hill politics," Chilton said. "It seemed kind of strange, kind of unusual having someone like that supporting me."
Chilton said he learned a lot working with Herzenberg after they both were elected - Herzenberg with the highest vote total ever in a council race up to that time.
"Joe was somebody who was not afraid to stand up for the things that he believed in even if his point of view might be unpopular," Chilton said. "Joe and I were at the losing end of a couple of votes together over the years."
The two were the sole dissenting votes when the council decided to establish new policies allowing public housing apartments to be searched for drugs.
"We were quite vilified for that," Chilton said, who keeps a copy of an editorial cartoon that shows the two being burned at the stake together.
Herzenberg resigned from the council in 1993, but continued to remain active in Chapel Hill, serving on several town boards, including the committee that worked to rename Airport Road in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
He was a longtime Democratic Party supporter, and served as a precinct captain for many years. On Election Days, Herzenberg would go around in the afternoon to convince people to vote.
"He and others would go knocking on doors and all but drag them to the polls," Kleinschmidt said. "He didn't care if they were going to vote for him or not. At the end of the day, he appreciated people participating whether they agreed with him or not."
The upcoming municipal elections mark the 20th anniversary of Herzenberg's election. Equality NC, which Herzenberg helped found, planned to honor him at its Equality Conference and Gala Saturday.
Nelson now will share a personal remembrance during the gala.
Herzenberg is survived by his brother Bobby; his sister-in-law, Debbie; his nephew, Michael; and his niece, Sarah. He was preceded in death by his brother David.
A memorial service is being planned and likely will occur in the coming weeks. Friends and family have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Interfaith Alliance or Equality NC PAC.
Herzenberg's friends have taken to calling him an unofficial mayor of Franklin Street, recognizing the time he spent downtown meeting new and old friends.
And, in typical fashion, Chilton said Herzenberg reached out to everyone downtown.
"It wasn't just all the business owners and patrons he was friends with," Chilton said. "Joe knew all of the panhandlers by name. He really knew everyone."
BY BETH VELLIQUETTE
CHAPEL HILL -- Joe Herzenberg, one the first openly gay elected officials in the state, a political mentor to many and a former Town Council member, died Sunday at UNC Hospitals.
He was 66 years old.
Mr. Herzenberg had been suffering from serious health problems related to diabetes for about a decade and was hospitalized in a coma about a year ago. He recovered from the coma and seemed to be doing better when he had a downturn several weeks ago and was hospitalized again.
His friends held a vigil at his hospital bed during his last days, and some of them were with him when he died.
Mr. Herzenberg's time on the Chapel Hill Town Council from 1987 to 1993 was filled with highs and lows. His friends and supporters said he led conservation efforts, worked to preserve the historic district of Chapel Hill, built the greenway system, was instrumental in developing the tree ordinance and always fought for the civil rights and civil liberties for all people.
Yet he resigned from the Town Council in 1993 when it became known that he had not filed his state tax returns from 1978 to 1992 or his intangible tax returns from 1986 to 1992. He resigned as election workers were close to validating a recall petition.
Mark Kleinschmidt, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, was with Mr. Herzenberg and friends at the hospital several hours before he died on Sunday evening. "Yesterday we were all gathering. The Rabbi had come and gone through the end of life process for him, and we made a schedule when each person would come to be with him," Kleinschmidt said.
Kleinschmidt went home and was scheduled to return later that night when he got a call about 6:15 p.m. Kleinschmidt rushed back to the hospital. "He was gone," he said.
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, the youngest person to be elected to office in North Carolina, served on the Chapel Hill Town Council with Mr. Herzenberg and also was with him during his last hours.
Chilton, a student at UNC at the time, met Mr. Herzenberg as they both were running for two open seats on the Chapel Hill board. "I think Joe might have been the only person besides me that thought I could win in 1991," Chilton said. "He was somebody who really believed in me and helped give me a chance.
"When we both won in 1991, him by a landslide and me by a fingernail, we worked very closely on the Town Council," Chilton said. "I learned a lot about how to do things from Joe."
Mr. Herzenberg lived on Cobb Terrace for many years and walked downtown often, sometimes sitting in front of Pepper's Pizza, speaking to the many people he knew as they walked by. "He did cut an unusual profile," Chilton said with a laugh. "He was very recognizable, and he was always on foot."
Mr. Herzenberg knew not only the store owners by name, but also the employees and the homeless people and panhandlers who hung out downtown, Chilton said.
Kleinschmidt also was a student at UNC when he first met Mr. Herzenberg, he said. "Like many young people who are now involved in local issues, he was a very important part of helping me develop," Kleinschmidt said. "He was always so much more than a friend. He was my mentor. He was my teacher."
Although Mr. Herzenberg lived in Chapel Hill and served on the Town Council there, he was very influential in Carrboro politics as well, said Carrboro Alderman Jacquelyn Gist. "If anybody doubts Joe's influence in Carrboro, our last three mayors were mentored by him, Ellie Kinnaird, Mike Nelson and Mark Chilton," Gist said.
Staff writer Ginny Hoyle contributed to this report.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Local activist Joe Herzenberg passed away at about 6 p.m. Sunday at UNC Hospitals.
In 1987, Herzenberg was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council, becoming North Carolina's first openly gay elected official and the first in the south.
Mark Kleinschmidt, an openly-gay Chapel Hill town council member, along with several other local leaders, say they owe their political career to Herzenberg.
Kleinschmidt calls Herzenberg his hero."Joe's one of the most special people in the world to me," Kleinschmidt said. "He was a mentor - not just in politics."
The Equality NC Foundation will honor Joe Herzenberg at the Equality Conference & Gala on Saturday in celebration of the 20th anniversary of his 1987 election. He served on the Chapel Hill Town Council from 1987 to 1993.
He was also a founder of Equality NC PAC, then NC Pride PAC, and served on that board for more than a decade. Since his 1987 election, Herzenberg served the town on several advisory boards.
"You look around the community and see the things that make it a wonderful place to live - you see Joe in all of it," Kleinschmidt said. "Whether that's social politics, our greenways, our libraries, our downtown. Those things were hugely important to them.
"Making sure Chapel Hill was a wonderful place to live and work was something he committed his life to."
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Joe Herzenberg, longtime Chapel Hill Town Council member, Democratic Party stalwart, Greenways champion and an astute historian of local politics died today from complications of diabetes.
He left this world, we are told, surrounded by friends. Details of memorials to follow.
Update: Thread on OP: We’ll Miss You Joe