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.