By Ashley Christian
Former Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson is scheduled to be sworn in on Dec. 4 as the latest addition to the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
This latest title comes after a lifelong interest in politics and a dedication to making change. His campaign platform included such goals as valuing diversity, balancing human needs with environmental responsibility and ensuring that people of all walks of life can achieve their dreams and goals.
Nelson said he was attracted to his new position because it would present a new set of challenges. “There’s a whole new set of issues to dig into – social services, education, law enforcement,” he said.
He said the transition will not be too difficult because the day-to-day activities, such as meetings, would be similar.
However, he said that he will have to learn a lot quickly and that he is in “education mode” now. “I can predict that my first year will be a learning experience.”
On the Board, Nelson said that he will be dedicated to environmental issues, along with attempting to create a community that will be affordable for all residents. “The county has experienced 18 straight years of tax increases, [which present] affordability problems for people living in the county,” he said.
His new position is just the next level of achievement in a life devoted to public service and politics. The 1989 UNC graduate stayed very involved in campus life. He participated in student congress and the organization that is now the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) association.
His most memorable moment on campus, however, came as a result of his involvement in Carolina’s anti-apartheid movement. “I was arrested on campus [along with other students] for trespassing,” he said. He added that he was acquitted when the judge laughed at their story in the courtroom, finding it ironic that the students were charged with trespassing on their own campus.
After college, Nelson worked for NARAL and the National AIDS Hotline, along with becoming the founding executive director of NC Pride PAC (now Equality NC), the state’s first political action committee to focus exclusively on issues of importance to the lesbian and gay community. In the early 1990s, he served as vice-chair of the Orange County Democratic Party.
In 1995, Nelson defeated two veteran candidates, earning as many votes as the other two put together, to become Carrboro’s youngest mayor. He served a total of five terms before retiring in December 2005 as the longest serving mayor in Carrboro’s history.
Aside from founding the Carrboro Art Committee and Carrboro Music Festival as mayor, he made Carrboro the first stop in the nationwide “Out & Elected in the U.S.A” tour in 2002. The tour promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans who have served or are currently serving in an elected office.
Though some politicians hesitate to make their private lives public knowledge, Nelson said he would find it self-defeating to hide his personal life as a gay man from his constituents. “Never give others the power to hold something over your head,” he said.
Nelson maintains that the timing was right to relieve himself of his mayoral position. “It felt right,” he said, “I was burnt out as mayor.” For young individuals interested in pursuing a career in politics, he said he suggests getting involved in public service. “If you’re interested in public service, do it,” he said. He warns that, “you might give up a lot personally,” but said that the results can be extremely rewarding.