CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — At just 22, Lee Storrow hopes he’ll become Chapel Hill’s youngest council member since then 21-year-old Mark Chilton was elected to the body in 1991.
Storrow, who is openly gay, is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the managing director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health. He also serves on the board of directors of the American Legacy Foundation, a group founded from the 1998 settlement with the nation’s major tobacco companies. He’s stressed public transportation, affordable housing and expanding the town’s tax base as key issues in his campaign.
“There is a need to have someone on council who is a coalition builder and who will do the work to reach out to all residents, particularly young people,” Storrow said. “A third of Chapel Hill’s population is under 24 years old and without our voice at the table we don’t get policy solutions that are as best for our town as they could be.”
Storrow faces a crowded field in the election this year, to be held on Nov. 8. In the midst of his campaign for office, Storrow was keenly aware of the legislative fight brewing over an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment that seeks to ban recognition of marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. When lawmakers approved its placement on a May 8, 2012 primary ballot, Storrow took pause.
“I was incredibly disappointed with the vote at the legislature,” Storrow said. “That’s not the North Carolina I thought I grew up in.”
A native of Asheville, Storrow said he chose to stay in-state for school because of the progressive reputation North Carolina had fostered. He believes the Republican-led legislature has done more damage than they realize.
“I felt like our state was one that valued diversity and was open and accessible to all,” he said. “A lot of actions by the General Assembly this session moved our state backward.”
Storrow isn’t the only openly gay young person who found this year’s legislative session upsetting. Seventeen-year-old Raleigh resident Seth Keel feels like young people’s voices are being ignored. He’s an active member of N.C. HEAT, an education advocacy group that has protested controversial school choice decisions by the Wake County Board of Education. He’s also running for mayor of Raleigh. The law doesn’t permit him to run — one must be 21 in order to seek or hold office in the state — but Keel said his campaign serves as an opportunity to bring attention to issues important to local youth.
“It is the main purpose of this campaign, discussing how Raleigh can represent the youth on city council,” Keel said. “Youth aren’t being represented and are, at times, misrepresented. We have no voice in local, state or national politics.”
Keel believes Republicans in the General Assembly have continued to ignore the voice of young people, especially during debate on the anti-LGBT amendment.
“They did not consider the impact that this has on the youth within the LGBT community,” he said. “They don’t think about the message this sends to young gay and lesbian teens who want to grow up and want to have a life and marry and have a family. To see our governing body try to throw that away is sending a completely wrong message to LGBT youth.”
Keel also thinks Republican lawmakers were arrogant and “blatantly disrespectful.” On the day of the amendment’s debate in the House, Keel witnessed Majority Leader Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) leaning back in his chair and eating popcorn.
“Paul Stam is the epitome of what is wrong the Republican Party in this state,” he said. “This whole session has been about targeting people. We saw it with the voter I.D. bill and in the Women’s Right to Know bill and now trying to further oppress the LGBT community. It’s very hard to try to remain calm while [Stam] is so blatantly discriminating against me.”
Storrow and Keel both believe that young people will stand up and turn out to vote against the measure.
“Young people are angry in this state and they are ready to take a stand on this issue, whether they are gay or straight or some other sexual orientation or identity,” Storrow said. “Young people in college understand that this is important. They will go to the polls and we will see it fail.”
“I hope the youth turnout in May will be strong and at least show that youth care about this issue,” Keel said. “Regardless if it passes, our turnout will send a message that the youth here are adamantly against the amendment.”
Storrow recognizes that the campaign against Amendment One will be difficult. He says it is a challenge to progressive advocacy groups to “step up their game.” Though he’s still on the campaign trail for now, it’s a challenge in which Storrow fully intends upon investing himself.
“I’ll be taking a small break after the elections, but in the spring I’ll be knocking on doors to get progressive-minded people out to the polls,” he said. “I’m confident we have the ability and the passion to get folks out for the election.” : :