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.

Wednesday, September 29, 1993

Herzenberg won't try to regain seat - Ex-councilman says he'll pay back taxes

The News & Observer, Sept. 29, 1993


CHAPEL HILL -- Five days after Joe Herzenberg resigned from the Town Council, he said Tuesday he will not mount a write-in campaign to regain his seat.

Speculation about a write-in campaign had flourished since Herzenberg stepped down Thursday to avoid a recall election. Voters, unhappy about his failure to pay state taxes, filed a recall petition Sept. 16.

Until Tuesday, Herzenberg himself seemed to be fueling the rumors. He called a news conference at Town Hall and showed up wearing a red, white and blue "Joe" button on his shirt. He also joked about whether voters would have to learn how to spell his last name correctly for their votes to count.

Herzenberg said he considered his options for several days and finally decided about noon Tuesday.

"This is a good time for me to end my service on the council," Herzenberg said, despite pledges of support from friends and others.

"I'm going to risk hurting a few friends."

The former council member also vowed to pay his back taxes. He said he was going to write a check for $12,000 later this week -- which would cover the majority of what he owes. He paid $4,000 last year when he was convicted of not paying state taxes for 14 years.

He said his attorney and the state revenue department were working on the details of the repayment.

Herzenberg again apologized for the lapse.

"There is no excuse for what I did. I ask the people of Chapel Hill to judge me by all that I have done."

Herzenberg said he couldn't fully explain his decision not to run. He attributed it partly to the quality of the candidates already in the race.

"I think the voters can easily find six people to vote for," he said. "It would be very different if a there were a bunch of nincompoops out there."

Eleven candidates, including three incumbents, are running for six open council seats Nov. 2.

The announcement not to wage a write-in campaign surprised council members, but most said they were relieved that Herzenberg quit last week.

"It was a good thing for the council because it cleared the air and kind of removed a cloud," said Council Member Julie Andresen. "Now we can concentrate on business and not be distracted."

Others were disappointed.

"It's unfortunate all this happened," said Jerry Salak, who had offered to help Herzenberg organize a write-in campaign. "I think he's a terrific asset to the town. It's sad that his mistake will prevent him from continuing the good work he's done."

Herzenberg, who served eight years on the council, said he watched the meeting Monday on a friend's television. "I've enjoyed the freedom I've had in the last few days," he said. "There is more to life than serving on the Chapel Hill Town Council. It's not that my life will be empty without this. It will be less full."

But the gregarious Herzenberg still wouldn't rule out running for the office sometime.

"Never say never," he said.

Tuesday, September 28, 1993

A Fixture Resigns From Council: Colorful, quirky tenure ends quietly

News & Observer, Sept. 28, 1993


CHAPEL HILL -- Joe Herzenberg's departure from the Town Council came in stark contrast to the lively manner that characterized his career as the town's most colorful elected official.

Late last week, Herzenberg, 52, left the board quietly, handing in a hand-written resignation letter. In doing so, he did what his colleagues had been trying to persuade him to do for a year, since he was convicted of not paying taxes. The threat of a recall election finally nudged him off the council. "I did have this little bit of freedom walking out of Town Hall," he said over a snack of rye toast and banana pudding a day after he stepped down.

On Friday, he reflected on a political career as a council member from 1979 to 1981 and from 1987 to 1993.

Perhaps the most accessible council member in town history, Herzenberg is popular with Chapel Hill's gay and lesbian community and with the town's black population. He was the top vote-getter in the last election.

Other than the council position, he has not held down a regular job in years. He does not own a car. Instead, he strolls the downtown streets, where he has become a fixture. He can be found almost nightly at funky restaurants like Pepper's Pizza and Crook's Corner.

"I think you see more when you don't drive," he says.

His constituents have noticed his quirky habits. Like accepting messages on his answering machine both for himself and his cat, Harriet Levy. Like running old-fashioned, door-to-door campaigns.

A historian with a degree from Yale University, Herzenberg arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 for graduate school. He began a biography of Frank Porter Graham while at UNC, but has never completed it.

Herzenberg, a strong civil rights advocate, taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where he worked for black voter registration and made the rounds of restaurants with black friends crusading for desegregation.

"Joe has a history of identifying with those who have been oppressed in our society," said former colleague John Dittmer, a history professor at Depauw University.

Herzenberg grew up in the tiny zinc-mining town of Franklin, N.J., where his Jewish father ran a drug store and his Presbyterian mother instilled in him a keen interest in Democratic politics.

He said his religious background and his homosexuality made him feel different from an early age. Eventually, when he went into politics, he wanted to represent people who were different, too.

"Things like my civil rights activities also served as a surrogate for civil rights for myself," he said. Herzenberg, who was the state's only openly gay elected official, pioneered the way for other homosexual candidates, including two men running this year in local elections in Carrboro and Asheville.

His biggest effect on the town?

"Being open to all kinds of people," he said. "Being willing to listen to all kinds of people even if they're developers and even if they're street people."

Former council colleague Bev Kawalec said Herzenberg's political energy was undeniable.

"He's extremely responsive to the people," she said. "He makes himself accessible, seemingly tirelessly."

Herzenberg says he won't be remembered for any one pet project or big development, but instead for small deeds for citizens who come to him for help.

Now, he says, he'll find other things to keep him busy.

"I have plenty of things to do," he said. "The inside of my house needs painting."

Illustration: photo

Joe Herzenberg was the most accessible member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and the top vote-getter in the last election.

Saturday, September 25, 1993

Town official resigns

The News & Observer, Sept. 25, 1993


CHAPEL HILL - Joe Herzenberg has quit the Chapel Hill Town Council after months of resisting voter unrest over his conviction for evading state taxes.

Herzenberg, delivered his resignation Thursday night to town officials, one week after the Orange County elections office received a petition calling for his recall.

On Friday, Herzenberg declined to comment on his reasons for leaving or what he might do next, including the possibility that he might return as a write-in candidate.

"I'm not ready to talk about it," he said. "I don't really have any plans right now."

A colorful, liberal politician who once marched in a Chapel Hill Halloween parade dressed as "The Red Menace," Herzenberg is a hero to Chapel Hill's gay and lesbian community and to many black citizens in town. He was the top vote-getter in the last election.

But that popularity could not ward off the increasing complaints about a convicted tax-evader governing taxpayers.

Herzenberg's foes filed a recall petition Sept. 16 with about 2,700 signatures -- about 500 more than were needed to call a special election.

While all of the signatures had not been officially certified, elections board employees were within 200 names of verifying the petition when they learned of the resignation Friday morning.

James McEnery, the retiree who began the petition drive, said he was relieved to hear Herzenberg had stepped down.

"We don't need any accolades or kudos for this thing," he said. "It worked, and as far as I'm concerned, that's all that was necessary."

McEnery said he bore no ill-will toward Herzenberg.

"Once the drive got started, many people said they voted for him the past and never would again," he said. "In fact, I voted for him the first time."

Last year, Herzenberg pleaded guilty to failing to pay state taxes for 14 years. For the misdemeanors, a judge fined him and put him on unsupervised probation for five years.

The council member publicly apologized, but refused to step down despite pressure from the council. In the end, the council voted to officially censure Herzenberg, and he resigned as mayor pro tem.

Within a few months, the council unanimously approved a plan to add a recall provision to the town's charter.

Herzenberg said Friday he had paid $4,000 of an estimated $12,000 in back taxes. "I plan to pay it off as soon as possible," he said.

Herzenberg's colleagues said they were relieved by his resignation.

"I think it was the right thing to do," said Mayor Ken Broun. "I just wish he'd done it sooner."

Council Member Alan Rimer agreed. "It's good for the town," he said. "It saves the town the expense {of a recall election}, and I think it would have been very painful for Joe."

A special recall election could have cost the town at least $12,000.

Council members said Friday they were not convinced Herzenberg would disappear from the political scene. "Joe still has a lot of support in town," Chilton said. "But there will always be people who refuse to forgive him for the mistakes he's made."

Art Werner said a successful write-in campaign would not surprise him. Herzenberg would need to finish within the top six vote-getters out of 11 candidates to re-gain a council seat.

"You don't need all that many votes to finish sixth," Werner said.

Rimer said he hoped Herzenberg would run as a write-in candidate.

"I sure hope he tries, because it would put to bed once and for all how the people feel."

Broun said he would ask the council on Monday to set a 30-day period to receive applications for the vacant seat. The non-incumbent candidate who receives the most votes in the general election would likely fill the seat until December.

Reaction in downtown Chapel Hill was mixed Friday.

"I think his heart was in the right place with his politics," said Erwin Shatzen, owner of Pepper's Pizza. "The whole thing is real sad. This is a man who enjoyed what he did -- being a public servant."

Jean Smith was glad to hear of the resignation.

"I don't think he should be serving," she said. "I even signed the petition."


Staff writers Ruth Sheehan and Chris O'Brien contributed to this story.

Thursday, September 9, 1993

Town still bearish on arms - Chapel Hill unfazed by gun control foes

The News & Observer, Sept. 9, 1993


CHAPEL HILL -- The Town Council appears ready to forge ahead with handgun restrictions despite the well-organized opposition displayed at two rowdy public hearings this week.

Gun control opponents orchestrated a powerful campaign to convince council members that the issue is just too unpopular. At a marathon public hearing attended by 450 people Tuesday and Wednesday nights, they outnumbered gun control advocates by more than 2-to-1.

They wore stickers and buttons, and some sported hats bearing the National Rifle Association insignia. They have begun petition drives and some have even formed a non-profit corporation dubbed the North Carolina Constitution Defense Association.

Some Town Council members were impressed by the turnout -- but added that they weren't convinced gun control is a bad idea.


Council member Mark Chilton said that despite the thunderous response at the hearings he's confident that many more Chapel Hill residents support the notion of limited gun control.

"What we saw was primarily a reaction against the idea of a gun ban," he said Wednesday. "An issue like that is bound to motivate a certain segment of the population. My responsibility as a council member is to use a lot of different methods to gauge the public sentiment of the 40,000, rather just listening to the 60-some at the hearing."

Chilton said conversations with townspeople have convinced him that concern about the number of guns on the streets is growing.

Art Werner, the council member who originally proposed the hearing, said he still wants to pursue three possible proposals outlined by the town attorney: banning handguns in public gathering places, such as polling stations and downtown streets; prohibiting possession of guns by people consuming alcohol or drugs; and banning handguns that are small and easily concealed.

"I didn't hear anybody present any evidence why we should not prevent people under the influence from carrying weapons, or why we should not ban weapons on places like Franklin Street," he said.

Council member Joe Herzenberg said the hearings clearly demonstrated the amount of tension in the usually peaceful university town.

"I am appalled, not necessarily by their anger but by their fears," he said.

Council members said they had received a flood of phone calls on gun control -- many from out-of-towners.

Most of the 32 speakers at the hearing Wednesday were from outside Chapel Hill; they came from Durham, Carrboro, Cary, Hillsborough and Raleigh. A vast majority of them defended their constitutional right to bear arms -- some insisting it is a God-given right. Others told horrifying personal stories about being victims of crime -- and pledged that with guns, they would never be victims again.

Still others, in angry tones, threatened to vote council members out of office if they don't back off on gun control.

The issue could become intertwined with the election this fall, when 11 candidates, including three incumbents, vie for five open council seats. Already three candidates have made public statements about gun control.

On Wednesday, the council adjourned without discussing the issue. Members referred the matter back to the town manager, who will present specific recommendations Oct. 25. A public hearing would then be held on the specific proposals.