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.

Thursday, November 7, 1991

Student, 21, is likely youngest state winner

The News & Observer, Page B1, Nov. 7, 1991

By RACHEL BUCHANAN, Staff writer

CHAPEL HILL -- If Mark Chilton had been born two months later, his political savvy would be for naught.

Mr. Chilton, the surprise winner of one of four open seats in Tuesday's Chapel Hill Town Council election, barely made the legal age limit to enter the race. He turned 21 five weeks before election day.

That makes him the youngest elected official in town history. Although the state Board of Elections does not keep statistics on the ages of elected officials, he is probably the youngest candidate ever elected in the state.

And, more significantly for local politics, he is the first undergraduate at the University of North Carolina to be elected to a four-year term on the council.

Gerry Cohen won a seat on the town council in 1973 while he was a graduate student at UNC-CH. But Mr. Chilton is a senior, 21 credits short of graduation. And he was successful against eight opponents, including longtime town business owners, experienced politicians and dedicated community activists.

"Why did he win?" asked council member Arthur S. Werner, who was not up for re-election Tuesday. "He beat the other candidates. He came across as a very nice young fellow who was not a single-issue candidate."

Despite Mr. Chilton's age and student status, his election was no fluke. He began organizing a detailed campaign to win in January -- months before many of his opponents even considered bids.

"This morning I heard two businessmen talking about Mark," said Joseph A. Herzenberg, a town council member who won re-election Wednesday.

"One of them said, 'How did Mark fool so many people into voting for him?' And the other answered, 'Well, he fooled me by coming up to me and asking me for my vote.'"

Mr. Chilton looks younger than his age. His red paisley tie hangs conspicuously on a rumpled white oxford shirt. Blond-haired and round-faced, he could be mistaken for a freshman.

"Obviously that was the face he presented to the voters," said departing Mayor Jonathan B. Howes, a government professor at UNC-CH who has taught Mr. Chilton.

"Maybe that was something voters took comfort in. If they wanted to elect a student, he really looked like a student."

Mr. Chilton was born in Seattle and has lived in St. Louis, Raleigh and Warrenton, Va. He attended Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Alexandria, Va., and now lives off-campus in the Northside neighborhood. His parents, Scott and Mary Dell Chilton, live in Raleigh, which Mr. Chilton describes as "mass suburban sprawl."

The elder Chilton, a botany professor at N.C. State University, was surprised by his son's decision to run for office.

"We're very proud of him," Dr. Chilton said. "He's come a long way.

"As a child he had problems with disorganization. He'd do his homework and then forget to take it to school. I can remember one day I went to pick him up from school and he was a block away looking in the sewer. He said he thought he had dropped his homework in there."

An idealistic, environmental activist, the council member-elect became politically active during his sophomore year after a trip to Costa Rica with the Student Environmental Action Coalition.

"It made me realize that it's not that there aren't enough resources for everyone to get by in the world," Mr. Chilton said. "It's that they aren't fairly distributed."

He said he won the town council race because he surprised voters with his knowledge of the issues, especially his well-researched stand on transportation and solid-waste issues. And he credits his friends with hard work.

The 20 student members of the Mark Chilton For Council staff used homemade tactics to create a successful political machine.

They tacked up homemade poster-board and paint signs all over town, placed balloons around campus on election day and organized dorm captains to remind student voters to head to the polls.

But the campaign wasn't without its sophisticated elements. Mr. Chilton's staff contacted every registered voter on campus, conducted precinct analyses of voters to determine likely areas of support across town, and solicited the endorsement of the NAACP, the Orange County Greens, the Sierra Club and local newspapers.

The result was a heavy student turnout and an interesting election night for the town's political observers.

But when asked if the race will encourage him to seek a life in politics, Mr. Chilton leaned back and sighed.

"Gosh," he said. "I hope not."

Wednesday, November 6, 1991

Joe re-elected as top vote-getter in Town Council race

Town elects undergrad to council: UNC-CH's Chilton makes history; law professor wins mayoral race

The News & Observer, Nov. 6, 1991, Page A1

CHAPEL HILL -- Chapel Hill voters bolstered their historical ties to the University of North Carolina on Tuesday, electing a law professor as mayor and an undergraduate geography major to a seat on the town council.

In unofficial returns, Kenneth S. Broun, former dean of the UNC-CH School of Law, swept 50 percent of the vote in the three-candidate race for the town's top elected office. And Mark H. Chilton, 21, a UNC-CH senior, took 3,012 votes in the council race. That was enough to defeat eight other candidates and
squeeze into the fourth and final available seat on the board.

The victory surprised the town's political observers: Chapel Hill has never before elected an undergraduate to the board. "I think this race challenged a lot of people's ideas," Mr. Chilton said. "I think some people thought a student couldn't make a serious run and that a student couldn't be qualified."

Mr. Chilton, whose parents live in Raleigh, credited his victory to strong student turnout and his endorsements from the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the Orange County Greens and local newspapers, including The Daily Tar Heel.

The council race drew an unusually large field - 12 candidates. And with the two incumbents emerging as early favorites, the remaining 10 candidates were left to compete for the two last spots.

Incumbents Joseph A. Herzenberg and the Rev. Roosevelt Wilkerson Jr. won easily, with Mr. Herzenberg drawing the most votes at 4,803 and Mr. Wilkerson coming in second with 4,476.

(Editor's note: In addition to running his own race for re-election, Joe was an enthusiastic supporter of Mark Chilton's candidacy for Chapel Hill Town Council in 1991. He was a mentor and adviser to Mark, providing Chilton's campaign with logistical and organizational help, access to donors, and introductions to key contacts on the local political scene. Chilton's victory made him the first undergraduate elected to public office in North Carolina.)

Monday, November 4, 1991

Full races to spur Chapel Hill changes

The News & Observer, Nov. 4, 1991

CHAPEL HILL -- One thing is sure in Chapel Hill's crowded Town Council and mayoral races: Tuesday will bring a change in the town's political leadership.

Four council seats will be filled in Tuesday's election, sparking a close race between 12 candidates -- many of them political newcomers. The mayoral race between three candidates is equally tight.


In Chapel Hill, the crowded race is likely to sweep some new political perspectives into town government, especially since the town's three most senior elected officials are not seeking re-election.

"It is very important, when running a government, to know what happened the day before yesterday or the year before last," said Joseph A. Herzenberg, a Town Council member seeking re-election. "There are not a lot of people around here who have much of a collective memory of municipal government."

Vote Joe Herzenberg yard sign, 1991. Thanks to Mark Donahue and his talented co-workers at Replacements, Ltd. for restoring this yard sign to its original glory!