When Election Day 2009 came to a close, many of us in the LGBT community were focused on the devastating blow of rollback of marriage equality in Maine. But there were some noteworthy bright spots in local races around the country. One gay man in North Carolina found himself celebrating a victory — Mark Kleinschmidt, the mayor-elect of Chapel Hill. Despite the town's liberal reputation and Kleinschmidt's long history of public service — he has served on the Chapel Hill town council since December 2001 — Mark won his race by only 106 votes. Blogger Pam Spaulding, who lives a stone's throw away in Durham, N.C., sat down with Kleinschmidt to talk about the political climate in North Carolina and the mixed feelings about the results of the election as well as his personal rethinking on the matter of marriage equality and the ballot box.
Pam Spaulding: What made you decide to run?
Mark Kleinschmidt: I've been on the council for eight years, and I wouldn't have run if our current mayor [Kevin Foy] hadn't decided to retire. And looking around at the possible replacements, I felt there was a real vacuum in leadership; there weren't any current council members or even former council members or others who were active in the community who were positioned well to take over the reins; I just felt I was the best qualified. I was concerned about Chapel Hill and whether or not there going to be any alternatives. Considering the other possibilities, I believed that I would be the best choice, so I did it.
Since you have been personally and professionally out of the closet for a long time, did you expect your orientation to be an issue in this race, since C.H. has a progressive rep?
I didn't. And then I had some opponents that were unexpected, including a couple of Republicans, and it did give me pause. I wondered when they joined the race whether or not it was going to be an issue. And it did come up toward the end in a way that didn't help my opponents at all.
During the early voting [two weeks before the election], one of the candidates [Kevin Wolff] announced that he was withdrawing from the race; nonetheless he maintained a presence at the polling sites and did some amount of campaigning. And one of the things he did was that he had signs at our early-voting places with literature tacked on for voters to educate themselves. And he had a typical campaign piece where he compared himself to his opponents ... and there was a checklist — "Who's going to lower your taxes ... I would, he [Kleinschmidt] wouldn't," typical things like that. But then there were these other points ... "Family," as in does he have a family — "I have a family," but Kleinschmidt doesn't have a family. The last one was "Gay Rights Activist" and he proudly has "N" for no, he's not one, and neither were any of the other candidates, but then "Yes. Mark Is a Gay Rights Activist." I was shocked.
The greatest impact it had was it showed voters how out of touch he was with the community; he had just moved to town four years ago, and he apparently has not been around long enough to know the town he has moved to.
Speaking of family, yours was there for you in a really big way — your mom was highly visible, and your sister was treasurer of your campaign. How much did that mean to you in the context of running a race like this?
It's been important ever since I've got involved in politics to have my family nearby. My parents and my sister, my former partner and current partner were very active in my campaigns. My friend Ruby [Sinreich], who's run for office in Chapel Hill, always said she would never consider doing it again unless she had someone to share that experience with — somebody who knows more about who she is than she's just a candidate. And that's the role my family lives to play. They know the whole of me, not just the public part of me. They could see points during the campaign when maybe I was a little tired or getting worn out, and they were able to meet my needs in ways the public and even campaign volunteers couldn't because they just didn't know me well enough. I think it's critical to anyone's success in politics or going through that process and exposing yourself to the public in a way that running a campaign does. You need to have a retreat, a place of safety; people attack you, and you need to be able to know there's always a foundation of love and support that family represents. And they played that role from the beginning; I'm so grateful.
That points to your opponent's discussion about family — there you have it, you have a family just like everyone else.
Yes, just like everyone else [laughs].
One of things I find very interesting, as a North Carolina blogger, and I'm sure you receive this as a North Carolina politician, is that many people are confused about the political identity of our state. What do you say to people when they talk about how N.C. is racist, bigoted, the state of Jesse Helms ...
When people mention our racist past and present and Jesse Helms, I ask them where is it that they live that's so different? Where is this Eden that you live in that is absent of all racism or any blowhards that are stoking the fires of racial tension? We just had the misfortune of having a very loud, high-profile senator who just took it upon himself to be the person who threw coal onto the fire every day. To think we're the only place in the country that suffers from vestiges of Jim Crow and slavery is really shortsighted. All that does is give those people something to pat themselves on the back about.
I talk about how North Carolina is different than what a lot of people believe is true about the South. I don't defend Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama and South Carolina, but we aren't any of those places. We never have been. As the South moved into the '50s, '60s, and civil rights issues began to dominate the American culture, North Carolina was one of the leading states in helping move it forward. We had leaders that had already come of age with progressive values helping to move the state, like Frank Porter Graham, Terry Sanford. And none of them did everything that we would have liked them to have done, but we made enormous progress in ways the states outside of the South only wish they could have made. While they further segregated themselves, our state has taken up the difficult challenge of true integration. And I think we are constantly self-acknowledging that we have not always been successful; it's a continuous process — and this is a state that gives birth to that kind of politics, and we should be proud of it. People need to reevaluate what they think of North Carolina. It's not a surprise to me that North Carolina had the first openly gay elected official [in the South — Joe Herzenberg, elected to the Chapel Hill town council in 1987]. Other states don't share that with Chapel Hill. There are very few places like this.
Although I have received negative feedback from other parts of the state, it's been rare. And over time, it's kind of strange, I've actually become a part of the institution of politics in North Carolina. I have a role ... it's a role I was invited into at least by some parts of the institution, particularly the Democratic Party. So I try to give feedback to these people to have them think about where it is they are from that is so different and that how we are not what they think we are.
What do you say to outsiders about life for LGBTs here?
I spend a lot of time in New York, and a lot of people there are bemoaning the demise of the gay nightclub. They are still there, obviously, but the social constructs of the bars and nightclubs don't have as strong a role in gay social circles as they did maybe 15 years ago. Chapel Hill, actually, is experiencing the same thing — we don't have a gay nightclub. When we were getting ready to invite LGBT travel professionals around the country to come experience Chapel Hill, we didn't have a gay place to take them to. For the same reasons in New York, the gay infrastructure is kind of falling away — Chapel Hill is a town that is very integrated. Some of our most prominent business owners and restaurateurs and others who are part of the hospitality industry are gay.
And they are out.
And out about it — right, and everyone knows ... you walk into the restaurant it's owned by a gay person. And it's a completely different environment than what people were facing 20-30 years ago, even 50 years ago when our community was forced to create these safe spaces. Everything isn't perfect, obviously, but we're not what people expect.
I think one of the things I've found, for instance, when I spoke to Michelangelo Signorile about NYC's Chelsea neighborhood; he described that oftentimes some drunken guys would come in and start doing some gay bashing. I couldn't identify with that because that never happens here because the gay community is integrated within the entire community — there's no one place for them to attack anyone, we're integrated into the fold. But it is a culture shock for those who come from a gay metropolis, as in "where is the gay strip?"
The best we have is a three- or four-block area in Raleigh that happens to be three or four bars.
And that attracts a certain audience within the community.
I'm rarely there; I haven't been to that block in quite some time.
The whole area draws the creative class, which really encompasses both the LGBT and the arts community. I'm sure you want more of those people to move to Chapel Hill. How would you accommodate that growth if LGBTs want to move here and come in droves? That would change the composition of Chapel Hill.
Yeah, I guess it would ... we're a growing community; we understand that there is going to be change. There's an inevitability about growth, particularly in Southern cities like ours. Whereas in the Northeast and the Rust Belt there is an inevitability of contraction. Here we know the growth is going to happen, and Chapel Hill is preparing for a future where more people are going to live and work, and we want to be able to attract the people you're talking about ... I'd like those people to come, so hopefully we're doing our job to in attracting the creative class and keep that element alive.
How did you feel on Election Night when you saw that marriage equality was rolled back in Maine, yet there were local LGBT successes such as yours, Annise Parker’s [qualified for Houston mayoral runoff], Steve Kornell, city council [St. Petersburg, Fla.], Charles Pugh [Detroit city council president], etc.
One of the things that I was interested in was Kalamazoo, where the people had an opportunity to roll back rights and they kind of showed the Mainers how it's done. Of course I was very pleased with the results of my election, and I was excited to hear about Annise; she's been a friend of mine for a long time. But there was a moment — I had a lot of people who worked on the campaign who were gay and lesbian, at least half of my volunteers were. There was a moment of pause; it was kind of a reality check on where we really are. You think of the stereotypes down here in South — we look to the North as the enlightened Eden, right? [Smiles] They claim to be free of all this antigay hostility — and of course there hasn't been racism in 100 years [laughs]. It's further evidence of what I said before — people having an understanding of what the truth is about their environment and the community they live in. I think we learned a lot more about Maine than maybe Maine wanted to reveal. But it's better now that we know than to assume what we thought about it before.
And so where are we — 31 and 0 [on ballot initiatives and legislated bans on same-sex marriage]? But we continue to learn from each one ... 0-31 is kind of deceiving. It really should be 0-31-1, kind of ... Arizona did before it didn't [laughs] ...
People worked so hard in Maine and were so positive about the outcome. Do you think the marriage issue is just too much right now for some of the public, that we haven't hit the right balance of sharing our lives in a way that they can identify, or gain enough allies, or is it just the tons of negative money being funneled in along with disinformation by the right?
Wow ... [looking pensive] I've been confident that marriage — the word and the idea of it and the rights that come with it — is what we need to be talking about. It's always been my position — talking about marriage and nothing else. But I'll be honest; I'm starting to wonder if that has been the best strategy, particularly given the Washington results [Referendum 71, affirming domestic partnerships]. The only evidence that I have that Washington State would have failed if it was called marriage is, well — California, Maine, and Arizona ... and Georgia ... and Hawaii ... and every other state that has put discrimination into its constitution. Now might be the time to have a conversation ... it takes me from being very confident that marriage and all the rights and responsibilities that comes with it is what we need to be fighting for — using the word every chance we get — to a place of uncertainty. The people of Washington are better off today than the people of Maine, and other than a word — the word marriage — the people of Washington now have everything the Mainers stripped their neighbors of.
Everybody (who is sane) agrees that putting civil rights on the ballot is wrong, not to mention unconstitutional. And it will be found that way, eventually. So, given the losses we've had on this particular issue, do you think that fighting referenda makes any sense, pouring hundreds millions of dollars into these campaigns is worth it?
I don't know [long pause] ... I think we need a little more care about each fight. I'm not convinced that California isn't worth it. I still think we can win California ... I think they should wait until 2012. I think we need to be pulling our people to the polls to vote. It's just much more difficult when you don't have an Obama at the top of the ticket [to pull more minorities to the polls]. I think we can do better the next time he's on the ticket ... in the absence of a high-profile election, there are huge segments of our people [pro-marriage equality] who will not be voting even though they would be with us if we could get them there [the polls]. California is 3,000 miles from here, so perhaps they have some strategies for getting them to the polls or improving turnout on our side. And if they do, I wish them the best.
About Mark Kleinschmidt:
Position: Chapel Hill town council member since December 2001. He was the fifth openly gay North Carolinian to be elected in state history.
Profession: Executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative; represented several North Carolina capital defendants in post-conviction litigation; recruited and mentored of young attorneys and their development toward becoming capital trial attorneys. Previously was social studies teacher at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, where he was named the 1997 teacher of the year.
Boards and organizations: North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union, the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials, the North Carolina Democratic Party, and Equality NC.
Family: His father, Jim Kleinschmidt, is a retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant and his mother, Marge Kleinschmidt, is a registered nurse. He has a twin sister, Michelle Barbee, who served as campaign treasurer.