Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Saturday, September 14, 1991

Group to seek gay candidates - Fund-raiser, meeting set

The News & Observer, Sept. 14, 1991

By MARLA COHEN, Staff writer

DURHAM -- A new organization wants to bring more candidates for public office out of the closet and into the state political arena.

The North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Political Action Agenda is gearing for its organizational meeting and fund-raiser on Sept. 21. One goal is to encourage openly gay and lesbian candidates to run for local and statewide public offices.

"We already know there are lesbians and gays in the General Assembly," director Mandy Carter said. "We want more to run, but we also want those who are already there to feel like it's not political suicide to be out."


One way the group hopes to achieve its goal is by putting money behind its endorsements. And development of a political action committee could go a long way toward that end, Ms. Carter said.

Although forming too late to tackle the 1991 elections, Ms. Carter and another organizer, Michael R. Nelson, have roughly sketched plans for the next five years.


After the 1990 Senate race in which Republican Sen. Jesse A. Helms defeated Democrat challenger Harvey B. Gantt, gay and lesbian organizers realized a need for an ongoing political organization to promote their interests. During that heated race, N.C. Senate Vote '90 was formed.

Senate Vote '90 sought to defeat Mr. Helms by conducting a campaign against him independent of Mr. Gantt's efforts. The group raised about $275,000 in its efforts, said Ms. Carter, who was the organization's only paid staffer.

Mr. Nelson, who ran as an openly gay candidate for the Carrboro Board of Aldermen in 1989, said it would be premature to discuss specific goals of any political action committee that develops from these efforts. But generally, the group would aid gay and lesbian campaigns as well as those of heterosexual candidates that are supportive of gay issues.

Nationwide there are 56 openly gay and lesbian elected officials. Including political appointees, there are more than 1,000 out-of-the-closet officials, according to figures from the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a Washington-based political committee concerned about gay and lesbian issues.

But North Carolina's only openly gay office holder is Chapel Hill Town Council member Joseph A. Herzenberg.

And while political action committees have come under fire as a way for private interests to fill campaign coffers, organizers say they are part of the system.

"I have some reservations about them myself," said Mr. Herzenberg, who said he would not use any funds from this or any other political action committee in his re-election campaign. "But they are part of the political landscape, and an effective way of citizens getting their will across to elected officials."

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