Inside the halls of power
Updated: March 2, 2011 at 10:24 am
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In the 1980s, the chances for any openly gay man or lesbian woman wining an election to public office were pretty much slim-to-none. That didn’t stop scores of gay and lesbian North Carolinians from throwing their hat into the ring and giving it a shot.
With this year’s candidacies of openly gay Mark Kleinschmidt for Chapel Hill mayor, Lee Sartain for Raleigh City Council and Owen Sutkowski for Charlotte City Council, LGBT Carolinians’ attention has turned to queer politics and the history of the trailblazers who came before our modern day politicos.
Kleinschmidt, Sartain and Sutkowski have a wealth of LGBT political history preceding them. They stand on the successes, failures, lessons and legacies of the brave men and women who came before them.
Bob and Lightning
On August 25, 1981, openly gay N.C. State University graduate student Bob Hoy filed to run for the Raleigh City Council where just a generation before, arch-conservative Jesse Helms held office. Hoy was ultimately unsuccessful. Even The Front Page, North Carolina’s most comprehensive gay and lesbian newspaper at the time, said Hoy wasn’t a “serious contender.”
The Front Page’s writers changed their tune when Lightning A. Brown came onto the scene, extolling his abilities and platform. Just weeks after Hoy filed to run in Raleigh, Brown filed to run for the Chapel Hill Town Council.
Come election day, neither Hoy nor Brown won. Hoy picked up only three percent of the vote in his primary. Brown picked up more than 1,400 votes in his primary, but ultimately failed to capture the 2,100 votes required to continue on to the general election.
Hoy’s and Brown’s candidacies are likely the first openly gay candidacies for public office in the Carolinas.
‘The Mayor of Franklin St.’
Brown’s partner, Joseph Herzenberg, would go down in history. At the same time Brown was fighting for his chance to become Chapel Hill’s first openly gay town councilman, Herzenberg — not yet out — lost his chance to continue serving on the council.
Herzenberg had run for the council before. In 1979, he was narrowly defeated. He was later appointed to the council when University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student Gerry Cohen resigned. Trying to keep that seat in 1981, Herzenberg barely missed the mark, losing his seat in the same primary election that saw his partner’s defeat.
That didn’t stop Joe. In 1987, he ran again and won, becoming the state’s first openly gay elected official. Serving until 1993, Herzenberg was instrumental in political organizing statewide and was a co-founder of the Equality North Carolina Political Action Committee.
He died of complications from diabetes at the age of 66 on Oct. 28, 2007.
Queen City politico
Robert Sheets, a president of the 1980s-era Queen City Quordinators (once the non-profit publishers of Q-Notes), was no newcomer to the political arena.
As a child, Sheets watched his mother serve on the Charleston, W.Va., City Council for 12 years. He served on the Kanawha County (W.Va.) Democratic Executive Committee for six years and ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner. After moving to Charlotte, Sheets managed the city council campaign of Republican Jim Soukup.
In 1987, Sheets entered the Charlotte political scene as a candidate himself, running in the at-large primary race for Charlotte City Council.
While there was no hiding the fact that Sheets was openly gay, he wasn’t too keen on the idea of being completely open.
Q-Notes reported, “He said that asked whether he is gay, he will reply, ‘Would you ask such a damaging question of all candidates?’”
Sheets came in last against five other Democrats in the 1987 race. He tried once more in 1989, again unsuccessfully.
North Carolina’s Triangle — home to some of the state’s most liberal cities and towns — have given the Carolinas a stew of most of its openly gay elected leaders.
Mike Nelson, elected in 1993 to the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, became the state’s first openly gay mayor in 1995. He served five consecutive terms before moving to Hillsborough and running successfully for his current office as a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
In 2007, Nelson announced his intention to seek election to the N.C. Senate. Ultimately, he decided not to run after incumbent Democrat Ellie Kinnaird reversed her decision to retire. If he had run and been successful, Nelson would have become the state’s second openly gay or lesbian member of the legislature.
Nelson’s former partner, Mark Kleinschmidt, who is running for Chapel Hill mayor, is in his second term on the town’s council. First elected in 2001, Kleinschmidt will become the state’s third openly gay mayor if successful this fall.
Right outside of the hustle and bustle of the inner Triangle area, openly gay Elic Senter was elected mayor of small town Franklinton, N.C., in 2007. A former teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem, Senter moved back to his hometown of Franklinton to accept a position teaching at Wakefield High School in Raleigh. He now works as an education consultant with the North Carolina Association of Educators Center for Teaching and Learning. His position as mayor is the first elected office he’s ever held.
Moving and shaking
One might think having an openly lesbian member of the State Senate would make the good ol’ boys in Raleigh shake in their boots. Nope. They just keep pouring out the same old bigotry they always have.
But, that doesn’t dissuade Sen. Julia Boseman (D-New Hanover). First elected to the Senate in 2004, Boseman is the state’s first openly gay or lesbian member of the General Assembly. She didn’t waste anytime getting to work for the people of her district. The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research ranked her the 20th most effective senator out of 50 in her freshman year and said she was the second most effective freshman legislator in the 28-year history of their research.
This session, Boseman has taken on the responsibility of being the leading proponent of the School Violence Prevention Act, opening her to personal criticism from radical, right-wing colleagues.
In a House committee hearing on the bill on June 16, Republican Minority Leader Skip Stam of Wake County said same-sex parents were “more dangerous that second-hand smoke.” He said protecting gay students would lead to the protection of pedophilia and gay marriage. All this in front of Boseman and her six-year-old son, who were both attending the committee hearing.
Prior to her election to the Senate, Boseman served one four-year term on the New Hanover Board of Commissioners.
Making history in the Palmetto State
Nick Shalosky was only 21 when he was elected to the Charleston County Constituent School Board in 2008. Noticing no one had filed to fill the vacant seat in his district, Shalosky initiated a successful write-in campaign. His decision to take action and responsibility on behalf of his district made him the first-ever openly gay or lesbian elected official in the history of South Carolina politics.
At the same time, lesbian philanthropist Linda Ketner was vying for her chance to lead South Carolina’s First Congressional District. Her long battle against incumbent Republican Rep. Henry Brown was well-fought, but ultimately unsuccessful. It wasn’t all bad news, though. Despite her liberal stances and openness about her sexual orientation, Ketner received 48 percent of the conservative district’s vote — a victory in and of itself, no matter the outcome.
2008 also saw the openly gay candidacy of James Akers, Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for an open seat on the Greenville County Council. Garnering only 40 percent of the vote, he lost the race to Republican challenger Liz Seman.
Other current openly gay or lesbian elected officials include:
• Ernest Fleming: Warren County Board of Commissioners, first elected 2006.
• Janet Pepin, Boone City Council
• Lydia Lavelle, Carrboro Board of Aldermen
• Jennifer Knox, Wake County District Court
• Nancy Caviness, Duck, N.C., Town Council
Other historic candidacies include:
• Lesbian Sue Henry’s 1995 independent, write-in campaign for Charlotte mayor.
• Openly gay Jim Neal’s 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. He was defeated by then-N.C. Sen. Kay Hagan who went on to defeat then-incumbent Elizabeth Dole.
• Wade Boyles’ 2008 Democratic challenge to incumbent N.C. Rep. Dale Folwell in western Forsyth County. Folwell, a Republican, carried 60 percent of the vote.
• Libertarian Chris Cole’s several unsuccessful runs for the Charlotte City Council, N.C. Senate and House and U.S. Senate.�
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About the author: Matt Comer was the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007, with his tenure ending August 23, 2015.