Lee Storrow isn’t certain what questions will arise at one of the most important events of his life, so he studies everything.
He reads textbooks from the UNC School of Government. He recalls the Town Hall meetings he has attended for weeks. He asks neighbors for their opinions. He memorizes all he can.
Most people Storrow’s age would do this while cramming the night before the exam. But Storrow was preparing for the first Chapel Hill Town Council candidate forum, sponsored by the Friends of Downtown.
This is not just the first debate, but also one of the most difficult. Former Councilwoman Pat Evans, whose husband, Jack, was the executive director of Carolina North, UNC’s planned satellite campus, organizes the Friends of Downtown, a powerful group of business owners and advocates.
The room will be stuffed with Franklin Street proprietors who want answers to their parking and panhandling problems. It will be packed with astute political observers who will fact-check every statement and keep tabs on every campaign promise.
Storrow knows he has to deliver a clear, convincing speechone that doesn’t run over the allotted timeso he recites his two-minute opening statements three dozen times to his campaign manager, Evan Degnan, a classmate whom he met while they were UNC Young Democrats. Each time, Storrow tries to squeeze in more information before the red card is raised.
“No one knew what to expect,” Storrow says. “I had to establish myself as a serious contender.”
Looking as serious and as confident as a 22-year-old in a room full of discerning, veteran politicians can, Storrow discusses his most recent leadership experience, as managing director of the N.C. Alliance for Health and a member of the initiating committee for Chapel Hill’s comprehensive plan.
“But I’m not here today to pitch a bio,” he says. “I’m here today to talk about a vision for Chapel Hill.”
Storrow succinctly lays out his priorities for the town: expanded public transit, partnerships with downtown businesses and churches to allow public parking in their lots after hours, a faster pace for economic development, multi-family housing downtown and improving the relationships between permanent residents and student renters.
“When we started the campaign, expectations were so low for Lee at every stage,” Degnan says. “We had people at the first forum tell us they were shocked. They thought he’d just fall flat on his face.”
Seventy-five days later, 4,065 voters are convinced.
This week, Storrow will be sworn in as Chapel Hill’s youngest town councilman in 20 years, the youngest elected official in the state and one of the youngest openly gay elected leaders in the country.
Lee Storrow has always had a knack for rallying groups behind a common goal, whether it’s assembling a church group or helping run summer community theater programs, his father says.
“He’s always been organizing in that way,” Joel Storrow says. “His mind just kind of works that way I guess.”
It’s that skill that took him from being named “most likely to be elected president” in high school to meeting President Barack Obama at the White House last week at a private screening of The Muppets attended by military families and young leaders from across the U.S.
Storrow’s first contact with Chapel Hill Town Hall was as a college freshman, when he attended a meeting to request expanded bus hours for students.
Four years later, transit became a major focus of his campaign. He pushed for the transit tax, light rail and bus routes that would connect more efficiently to low-income neighborhoods. He also pledged to use his relationships with UNC administrators and student leaders to preserve historic neighborhoods and receive broader input on Carolina North.
The day after the election, Storrow chuckles and says he finds it weird to be called a politician. To him, the campaign was more about “being a voice for young people” and the community being “uniquely primed to have a young presence and young energy in town”which sounds awfully political.
He developed his sound-bite skills in high school debate class before becoming a self-described progressive advocate in Raleigh and in Washington. He specialized in congressional-style debate where he learned how to defend or defeat resolutions.
“Really, what Lee is made of he owes to the debate experience at Asheville High School,” Joel Storrow says.
Keith Pittman, head debate coach at Asheville High School, says Storrow was forced into taking the class when other electives filled. In his first competition, Storrow, a freshman, won an award. He competed in debate contests for the rest of high school.
“He was very much a natural at negotiation and compromise from the beginning, very social; even with a side he disagreed with, he had an ability to understand their position and come to some sort of agreement with them,” Pittman says. “His success this quickly in his career doesn’t surprise me in the least. I saw that coming a long time ago, and that’s one of the few people I can say that about.”
Storrow won local competitions and placed fifth at the nationals. But that success didn’t satisfy him. “In debate we would talk about issues, but at the end of the day we didn’t really change policy, we just debated about it,” he says.
Storrow can’t pinpoint what elevated his political aspirations, but he says he became motivated after his grandparents died of heart and lung ailments brought on by smoking.
Storrow was 17 when his grandfather passed away in 2006, and he offered to give a eulogy at the service.
“He gave a great speech, as usual; I knew he would,” his father recalls. “He was eloquent and talked about his trips to Monroe to see his Paw Paw. One of my wife’s country cousins came up to me and said, I remember this verbatim, he said, ‘That boy is going to be a politician.’”
The funeral was instrumental in pushing Storrow into politics, and he began focusing on snuffing out tobacco. As a high school junior, Storrow helped lead a successful campaign for tobacco-free parks. Christine Laucher, team leader for tobacco prevention at Youth Empowered Solutions in Asheville, says Storrow collected cigarette butts to demonstrate how much secondhand smoke occurred near children’s play areas, and he gave a convincing speech to the town’s parks and recreation board.
“Lee has been a leader from the start, and his investment in health and what’s going on in the community has been clear from a young age,” Laucher says.
Storrow later developed a training curriculum for other North Carolina students who wanted to push for similar local smoking bans. He was being honored for that work at a national tobacco control conference in Minneapolis when Melva Fager Okun met him.
Okun, senior program manager at N.C. Prevention Partners in Chapel Hill, was so impressed that she decided to offer him an internship. “After years and years of people coming to me, it was the first time I saw somebody and consciously went after recruiting him,” she says.
Storrow was charged with researching the statewide smoking ban on bars and restaurants and providing evidence for why hookah bars should not be exempt. He led other interns in lobbying at the General Assembly, including providing them maps to find the offices of their hometown legislators and training them to stay on message.
His advocacy work earned him some political detractors, including former Hookah Bliss Owner Adam Bliss, whose Franklin Street business was crippled and subsequently closed due to the ban.
Storrow not only wrote an authoritative report on hookah bars, but he reported Bliss when the business defied the new law. “As far as Lee Storrow is concerned, he’s a consummate politician, and I think the city of Chapel Hill deserves him more than I can say,” Bliss says. “I’m not real pleased with the city of Chapel Hill or Orange County for their conduct, and his conduct is questionable on a number of levels, so I think the two of them deserve each other.”
Storrow, who counts Bliss as his harshest critic, is unmoved. “If Adam Bliss is upset with me, I feel like I was doing something right,” Storrow says.
With Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, Storrow is now one of several openly LGBT elected officials in the areaand the youngest. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund doesn’t keep official statistics on who is the youngest elected LGBT leader in the country, but Denis Dison, the fund’s vice president for communications, says Storrow is certainly among the youngest. This year, a 22-year-old gay man was elected mayor of Holyoke, Mass., and a 21-year-old won a school board seat in Tucson, Ariz.
Dison hopes the victories can spur people to understand “what you can do while still being authentic about your life.”
“I hope those successes inspire people who are young to seek office regardless of sexual orientation,” he says.
The fact that Storrow is gay rarely was mentioned during his campaign. He says it’s “probably the least interesting thing about me,” though it does help shape some of his advocacy work.
In 2010, Storrow testified before the Department of Health and Human Services Blood Safety and Availability Committee after he was banned from donating blood.
He had given 75 units of platelets before he was ruled ineligible due to a long-standing, archaic law that restricts gay men from donating blood or blood products.
“I think we need more openly gay and LGBT people serving in government,” Storrow says, noting that this is especially important since the Defense of Marriage Amendmenta referendum that, if passed, would codify in the state constitution marriage as a union only between a man and womanis on the ballot in May. “I think our personal lives are political, and it’s important to speak up about polices negatively impacting them.”
At UNC, Storrow served two years on Student Congress. In his first race, nine students ran for nine seats. During his re-election campaign, a dozen candidates vied for the nine spots.
But Storrow didn’t rest on the power of incumbency; he used a Facebook group and distributed fliers on campus to secure a victory.
“I actually did the same thing in this campaign, just a lot more stuff, too,” Storrow says.
According to his unofficial count, Storrow’s team knocked on 6,000 doors in this election. He recalls sweating through three shirts on one summer afternoon.
First-year Carolina students who were canvassing as first-time voters were buoyed by “an old lady crew,” as Orange County Democratic Women co-secretary Lynn Knauff calls it, and nonprofit professionals on the stump for Storrow. A core group of a dozen volunteers did most of the work, but at its peak, 50 people were campaigning for Storrow.
They worked tirelessly because they had to.
Storrow predicted that he would always be the underdog. He was young, so young that his age, 22, and his graduation class, 2011, were taboo on the campaign trail. Instead, campaign workers called him a “recent graduate.” Storrow tried to highlight his nonprofit work and his leadership experience. Nonetheless, his campaign team was pleased when an article was written that didn’t use the number 22.
But when the 35-day campaign reports came out, Storrow was the surprise front-runner. With $9,183.32 raised, he had $1,300 more than his nearest competitor.
“I was shocked,” Storrow says. “I think a lot of community members were shocked, too.”
Chapel Hill political veterans had told Storrow it was a nice idea for him to run but he had little chance of winning. After the campaign finance reports were released, suddenly people started returning his voice mails, Storrow says.
The former UNC Young Democrats president even earned support from College Republicans President Anthony Dent, who wrote in the Carolina Review, the campus’ conservative journal, that, “Conservative students can’t expect much from Chapel Hill politics, but at the end of the day, Storrow is a fabulous guy, honest about what he believes and sincere in his desire to work with others.”
No longer the underdog, Storrow received endorsements from the Sierra Club and seven former or current council members, including Joe Capowski, Julie McClintock and Sally Greene, whose seat he will fill.
“We were young, but it didn’t mean we didn’t know what we were doing,” Degnan says.
Storrow used door-to-door and old-fashioned campaigning but also new techniques. His campaign team played trivia at bars under the name “Storrow for Town Council” to spread word about his candidacy. The night that the team dominated rounds on music and famous Jewish people, the host announced, “Storrow for Town Council wins.”
The team celebrated as if it were election night.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” a jubilant Storrow said on the real election night. “It matters how you communicate your message.”
If fundraising totals are a guide, Storrow excelled at making his message clear. Katie Early, director of development at IPAS, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit focused on women’s health and reproductive rights, worked on a fundraising project with Storrow while he was an intern. Storrow researched potential national donors and sharpened his ability to explain issues and galvanize support.
“I’ve seen people meet with Lee, who had not known him previously, engage him and ask him a question and come away with a real sense that this is who they wanted to support,” Early says.
Storrow is now the answer to a town trivia question: Name the three people under age 25 to win a non-student government election in Chapel Hill.
Gerry Cohen, now the General Assembly’s director of bill drafting, won in 1973 while studying law at UNC.
In 1991, Mark Chilton, now the mayor of Carrboro, became the youngest person elected in North Carolina at 21 years, 39 days.
Cohen and Chilton’s victories, and the fact that they didn’t flop in office, gave Storrow the credibility he needed.
“I had a lot of people say, ‘I voted for Mark Chilton and now I’m voting for you, too’,” Storrow says.
Chilton was so young, just 20, when he filed to run for Town Council that the Orange County Board of Elections consulted the state attorney general’s office to make sure he qualified. He was allowed to run because he would turn 21, the required age for a council seat, prior to inauguration day.
When Chilton filed for office, he thought he could help shape the dialogue on public transportation, sidewalks and other environmental issues.
“I wanted to find a way to win, but I wouldn’t say I expected that,” Chilton says. “There was no doubt that I would be the least credible from the start … It was a little intimidating at first, but I soon realized that most of my opponents didn’t have much more of an idea about running in this race than I did.”
Chilton’s candidacy, like Cohen’s, was aided by student voter drives of the day, aimed at defeating Republicans U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and President Richard Nixon, respectively, but neither could depend on the youth vote alone. (Both Helms and Nixon won.)
Chilton relied on a young campaign staff composed primarily of students, but councilman Joe Herzenberg and longtime resident Estelle Mabry provided the needed election calculus.
Still, Chilton didn’t have nearly the fundraising success that Storrow achieved. Chilton’s campaign signs were hand-drawn on poster board bought at the drugstore. His flyers were colored with highlighters, which went from orange and green to yellow as the contest wore on.
“Lee’s campaign reflects a lot about who he is,” Chilton says. “He’s a very serious young man, very professional. He’s probably not wearing blue jeans right at the moment. If Lee works half as hard as a councilman as he did as a campaigner, he’ll do great.”
The day after the election, Storrow can exhale. “To have time to take a breath and relax is really different,” he says, a berry smoothie in hand.
But the lull doesn’t last long. Suddenly, he’s tending to constituents instead of precincts. He has received an email on his phone from a resident concerned about the proposed light rail alignment.
“Governing is different from campaign mode; there’s not a finish line,” Storrow says. “The work of the council doesn’t end at a specific date.”
Days later, life as a Chapel Hill politician became thornier when town police stormed into a long-vacant downtown storefront wielding assault riffles to remove anarchists who had broken into the building with the hopes of turning it into a community center. Two journalists also were detained for half an hour in the raid.
Soon-to-be constituents are sending Storrow input every hour, he says. He supports a review of the incident and an examination of what policies should be implemented to protect reporters. He’s “thinking about what an apology should look like.”
“We have an obligation to really gain trust and support from our citizens,” he says.
Even with the issue unresolved, Storrow expects that attending council meetings since January of this year will help him transition smoothly into office.
For Chilton, moving from candidate to councilman initially proved difficult. “There were times when it was really hard. I don’t think I had very much credibility as a new councilman,” Chilton says. “I remember times when I was trying to make my point, I was recognized by the mayor and I had the floor, and people would try to cut me off and shut me down, sometimes successfully.”
Chilton wasn’t just young; he was the new guy. “Everybody who has not served in elected office is bound to be impressed that you are in this office. But your fellow councilmen just won this election or a previous election or in some cases several previous elections; it’s not as big of a deal,” Chilton says.
Two years later, three incumbents didn’t run for re-election. A year later, two resigned, and suddenly a 23-year-old Mark Chilton was a senior council member.
He earned important committee assignments, such as the Landfill Owners Group, where he represented Chapel Hill in a partnership with Carrboro and Orange County working with a multimillion-dollar budget. Previously he had been restricted to “the kind of stuff that never meets, and when it does it’s not very much fun.”
Storrow is likely to have a similar experience, though he’s walking into a more welcoming council than Chilton did. “He’ll probably be taken more much seriously from the start than I was,” Chilton says, adding that both Kleinschmidt and Councilwoman Donna Bell worked on his ’91 campaign.
Storrow will have to balance the need to be forceful with the need to stay politically relevant, Chilton says. “You have to learn to assert yourself, and that’s not always comfortable, but it’s really important. You can’t let anyone think that you can be sort of bullied by their experience.”
That doesn’t seem to be a problem for Storrow, who serves on the board of directors of the American Legacy Foundation, Youth Empowered Solutions and the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina.
“I’ve been the youngest person in the room a lot,” he says.
“I hope that people grade Lee as harshly as they want to. That’s what he asked when he ran,” says Degnan, the campaign manager. “He asked to serve. He didn’t run with the caveat that he’s 22.”