Born December 29, 1963
Carrboro, North Carolina
Elected Board of Alderman November 1993
Elected Mayor November 1995
Re-elected 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003
Elected Orange County Board of Commissioners November 2006
Nelson joined 11 other openly gay and lesbian elected officials from around the country on July 28, 1999 for a meeting with President Clinton. It was the first time ever a president had invited such a group to the White House to discuss issues.
Interview with Michael Nelson for Out and Elected in the USA
Q: What got you started in politics?
A: I’ve pretty much always been interested in politics and issues, and as I got involved in my community here there were a number of progressive issues that I felt passionately about – the environment, suburban sprawl – those were probably the two main issues that got me involved here in this area. So it’s not to say that it just sort of happened, but being involved in activist politics, before I knew it I was running for office.
Q: I understand that you ran one of Joe Herzenberg’s campaigns?
A: Yea – in 1987 I managed a campaign for Joe. He was the first openly gay candidate to get elected in North Carolina. He was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council that year. That was one of the first campaigns I was active in – definitely the first one I managed.
Q: Gay man, mayor, small town, North Carolina – a state probably best known politically for Jesse Helms – how did this happen?
A: (Laughing) No state is monolithic of course, just like California can elect the most progressive legislators and conservative legislators. North Carolina is a diverse state and I happen to live in a part of the state that is very progressive. My town is much more likely to vote for someone like Jesse Jackson than Jesse Helms. If you knew this area, it wouldn’t surprise you.
Q: You look so young for someone who is a mayor! How has the job been going for you?
A: It has been a tremendous learning experience. I’ve had such a good time. And it’s been a valuable experience for me and I think that being young has been both an advantage and a disadvantage. The job involves, in a general sense, leading the community on issues that are controversial, it involves running meetings, representing the community at various events which is nice, it involves working with a lot of personalities.
We’ve focused a lot on affordable housing – a lot of housing is really unaffordable and people aren’t really rich – the arts and entertainment, keeping our economy healthy. Things were in good shape. The town had not been in good shape. The previous mayor grappled with this and got things back in shape. I picked up where she left off. So in the past fifteen years the town has turned around economically. It’s about reaching its full economic potential. It really turned around from being sort of stagnant to being, really, the most vibrant community in the state. People now look to Carrboro for inspiration about how to solve suburban sprawl issues and how to fund the arts, how to support the new creative and innovative. We’ve gone from being stagnant to being cutting edge.
Q: Do you see yourself staying in this position for a while or do you have other aspirations politically or otherwise?
A: Yeah, I think for a little while longer I want to stay here. There are some important things for our community like projects I’ve initiated that I want to finish, but I would very much like to run for the state legislature as soon as the seat opens. I have every intention of running for the state legislature.
Q: Has being gay played much into what you are doing there at all?
A: No. When I first ran for office there was far more concern about my age – that I was too young to be running for office and whether or not I was experienced enough. I think at least in Carrboro as far as the gay thing the public is OK with it. The key for anybody who’s running for office is to talk about and focus on the issues that are important to their constituents. And if the voters see that you have good ideas, that you care, and that your heart is in the right place, they are going to support anybody. They are just not being concerned in the negative sense. But you’ve got to prove to them too.
For information on a touring exhibit version of Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, contact Ron Schlittler at email@example.com.