Why is Gary Kahn, Chapel Hill’s last Republican politician, running for mayor as a Democrat? | Orange County | Indy Week
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Why is Gary Kahn, Chapel Hill’s last Republican politician, running for mayor as a Democrat? 

All of this—Gary Kahn's tortured road to the GOP and back again—he blames on John Edwards.

When he moved to Chapel Hill five years ago, Kahn spotted the mop-haired politician dropping off his daughter at Time Out, a 24-hour greasy spoon on Franklin Street. This was 2011, shortly after Edwards' calamitous fall from Democratic presidential frontrunner to tabloid scandal fodder.

Edwards' wife, a beloved figure in Chapel Hill, had died of cancer the year before. The former senator's political career was all but over, wracked by his now-public affair during his wife's illness and subsequent love child with a campaign videographer.

"Every word that came into my head was a four-letter word," says Kahn. "If I have to live in the same town as John Edwards, I am not going to be in the same party."

And so, Kahn, a motor-mouthed, self-proclaimed moderate from New York, became a Republican. He also ran for office twice—Chapel Hill Town Council in 2013, Orange County Board of Commissioners last year—losing badly both times to popular Democrats. Now, Kahn is running for mayor of Chapel Hill—as a Democrat.

Bizarrely, in a town without any semblance of a Republican Party presence—county election records, which date back to 1971, show no victorious Republicans running for Town Council or mayor—Kahn may be a conservative's best chance in Chapel Hill, even though he abruptly switched affiliations this January, shortly before his campaign launched.

Town races are technically nonpartisan, but eight months ago, Kahn seemed to be the last registered Republican standing in this liberal bastion. He's established himself as a convivial but unfiltered Southern Village resident who believes local leaders are mucking up this growing college town.

Sitting outside of the Tobacco Road Sports Cafe in the East 54 development, Kahn's favorite hangout, he's no less reserved. He's opinionated but ribald, uncomfortably so. To many, he's probably just offensive.

"It was the neighborhoods," he says when asked why he left New York. "I was walking around one day, and I realized that no one around me was speaking English. They were all Asians. I heard nothing but ching, ching, ching, not a word of English. I'm one who thinks English should be spoken."

When those comments are read back to his opponent, popular incumbent Democrat Mark Kleinschmidt, there's a silence that stretches impossibly long.

"I'm speechless," says Kleinschmidt. "Does he know that he has moved to a community where its largest ethnic minority group is made up of folks from Asia? If that's what he's motivated by, he might not have picked the right place." (Indeed, Asians comprised almost 12 percent of the town's population in 2010, according to Census data.)

When Dave Carter, an Orange County Republican who ran failed bids for the General Assembly in 2012 and 2014, hears Kahn's comments, he exclaims, "Oh my God."

"He's a different kind of person," Carter says. "And I'm being nice when I say that. He's a head-shaker."

Augustus Cho, the former chairman of the Orange County GOP and a native of South Korea, declined to comment about Kahn's remarks. Dan Ashley, current chairman of the county GOP, didn't respond to the INDY's requests for an interview.

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Kahn, however, doesn't seem too worried about the blowback. He sips his water and chuckles. There's a light, almost chilly breeze in Chapel Hill today. Fall seems in its preamble. You could expect Kahn to loathe the season. It's a time of withering leaves and, for him, withering political ambitions.

Last year, in his race for Orange County commissioner, he won just 23 percent of the vote—not nearly enough to defeat Mia Day Burroughs. But Kahn found it encouraging all the same. In 2013, after all, he collected a paltry 1 percent in his bid for the Town Council.

"I look at it as a popularity contest anyway," he scoffs.

This year's race against Kleinschmidt appears even more doomed. "A snowball has a better chance in hell," admits Carter.

Kleinschmidt sounds similarly skeptical. "The Republican Party does have stronger ties to folks who live in the northern part of the county, in Hillsborough," he says. "But in southern Orange, in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, it just seems unlikely that a Republican could be successful."

Pamela Conover, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, says Republicans in Chapel Hill are relying on municipal voters to buck their party affiliation. Only 12 percent of Chapel Hill voters, after all, are registered Republicans.

"Switching parties may fool some people," Conover says. "But, eventually, if you speak, that's going to hurt you."

Cho and Kevin Wolff, a local patent attorney, were the last Republicans other than Kahn to try to win in Chapel Hill, both losing to Kleinschmidt in 2009. Orange County records show just four registered Republicans winning in Chapel Hill history, all for school board seats. Doug Breeden was the last in 1989.

Gary Kahn - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Gary Kahn

In Orange County Schools, another five Republicans have won school board races, although the last was in 1994. Meanwhile, Evelyn Lloyd, a sitting town commissioner in Hillsborough, was a Republican when she was first elected in 1991, but she switched her party affiliation earlier this year.

Others who fall to the right of Chapel Hill liberals have managed successful runs as unaffiliated candidates. Matt Czajkowski, who sat on the Town Council from 2007 until he stepped down this year to take a service job in Rwanda, fell just 246 votes short of defeating Kleinschmidt in 2009.

This time around, Kahn isn't even Kleinschmidt's best-known challenger. That would be Pam Hemminger, a former county commissioner and school board member. Hemminger represents a bloc of Chapel Hill voters who believe the town, under Kleinschmidt's watch, has become a gentrified, bourgeois mecca for mixed-use, high-density projects.

"Believe it or not, not everyone loves Mark Kleinschmidt," Kahn says. "Someone once told me, 'Gary, I'd vote for you, but you're a damn Republican.' It shouldn't be that way. It should be about the issues."

And besides, he's not a Republican any longer.

On the issues, Kahn falls affably in the middle. He's "pro-development," he says, but with a caveat: Build, but set a seven-story limit. And cordon off projects such as East 54 to downtown Chapel Hill and along its perimeter.

Most important to Kahn, he wants to freeze the long-underway planning for a light-rail connecting Durham and Chapel Hill. He doesn't have any numbers to prove it, but Kahn nonetheless insists that the public project, which could be completed in the next decade, won't make money. Expand the bus system instead, he says. And while it may not seem to matter much in a local government race, Kahn proudly announces that he's pro-choice and pro-death penalty.

Kahn insists that Chapel Hill, despite its liberal reputation, is more of a moderate town anyway. "I'm from New York," he barks. "You don't know what liberal is. Liberal my ass."

No matter which ideology is in charge, Conover says any locale may ultimately run into problems without electoral competition. "Otherwise, you have an echo chamber," she says.

Carter points out that a Republican running for Town Council or mayor in Chapel Hill isn't running to bomb Iraq or halt the nuclear treaty with Iran. Local conservatives—like Kahn—believe the town is spending too much. The town's property taxes are among the highest in North Carolina.

But Chapel Hill voters simply won't listen to a candidate with an "R" next to his name, Carter says. "I don't think a Republican in Chapel Hill could win in the next decade. I don't even think a Republican could win for dogcatcher."

Conover agrees. "Politics is an investment, and a party has resources," she says. "It's not going to put those resources into a lost cause."

And without that infrastructure in place, Chapel Hill Republicans have lost even Gary Kahn.

Asked whether he can possibly win this fall, Kahn's quixotic confidence fades for just a moment. His eyes dart back and forth. His hand trembles noticeably as he sets down his glass.

"It's hard to say," he says. "If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose."

The grin returns. You get the sense he could do this all over again next year.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The wrath of Kahn"

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