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 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.

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