The unlikely politician

by Keith Barber

Besse’s soft-spoken, cerebral style the cornerstone of his success

DanBesse always has time for a constituent. Sitting in a small café offHawthorne Road, the two-term Winston-Salem City Councilman spots aresident of the city’s Ardmore neighborhood placing his coffee order. Momentslater, Besse returns to the table with John Cardarelli, a precinctchair for the Forsyth County Democratic Party. Cardarelli said hesupports Besse, a Democrat, because “he has a good vision and hedoesn’t give up on that vision.” Cardarelli cited Besse’s workon the tree ordinance passed by the city council on July 20 as aperfect example of the councilman’s relentless approach to issues thatmatter most to his constituents. Cardarelli said it’s no coincidencethe resolution adopted by the council was titled the “BesseCompromise.” “That’s a sign of good leadership: He’spersistent,” Cardarelli said. Under the adopted ordinance, newdevelopment in the city will be required to conserve either 10 percentor 12 percent of the property’s total area for green space. Thelanguage of the tree ordinance is simple but getting all stakeholdersto agree on the language proved to be anything but. Melynda Dunigan, aformer president of the Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance, workedclosely with Besse during his attempt to get the first tree ordinancepassed in 2006. Despite their efforts, the community stakeholders —including the Sierra Club, the Neighborhood Alliance, homebuilders,realtors and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools — could not findcommon ground on the issue. “The parties were not in agreementand what Dan was able to do shows his leadership,” Dunigan said. “Hetook the version that the staff proposed and took the version theplanning board approved and made his own compromise version — acomposite of those two versions. He fashioned something workable andmet the objective of preserving trees in the city and satisfied allparties. To me that shows a tremendous amount of leadership on his part— someone who’s able to go the extra mile to get something passed.” Besse’sjourney in politics began more than 40 years ago at the age of 13. Aseventh-grader at Hickory Junior High, Besse made campaign calls forGlenn Hilton, a Hickory city councilman. Besse said his motivation toget involved in politics was borne out of his passion for environmentalissues. He was fed up with the Hickory City Council for not protectingthe forest surrounding Lake Hickory and for selling the timber rightsthe previous year. That’s when he jumped into the political arena. Besserecalls that first political phone call, and how he had to overcome hisnatural shyness. “I’m not a natural extrovert so doing things likecalling strangers on the phone and knocking on doors has always beentough,” Besse said. “It’s a stretch for me — going to events andintroducing myself to people I’ve never seen. It’s all a challenge.” Today,Besse says he’s learned how to reach out to constituents. “Even thoughI’m not a natural, I’ve practiced for years,” he said. “The key islistening to what people have to say; if they’re comfortable and theycan tell you’re listening to what they’re saying; more often than not,you’ll find they’re interested in at least some of the things you’reconcerned about. And if you can speak knowledgeably about the issuesthey’re concerned about, they’ll remember you.” A graduate of theUNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, Besse entered public service by workingon several state commissions, including the NC Coastal ResourcesCommission and the NC Environmental Management Commission. In 1998, heran as the Democratic nominee for NC House, losing to incumbentRepublican Lyons Gray. In 2001, Besse achieved his goal of electedoffice, winning a city council seat to represent Winston-Salem’sSouthwest Ward. Last year, Besse mounted a campaign for lieutenantgovernor, but finished fourth in the May 6 Democratic primary. He isrunning for his third term on the city council. Hisenvironmental advocacy stems from his belief that protecting water andair is the foundation for a good quality of life. Besse cites the citycouncil’s role in joining a regional early action compact, which wascreated under EPA authority to involve local governments in clean-upprogram in the area as one of his biggest achievements to date.

“We put together and implemented a plan to meet clean-air public health standards within a period of time,” Besse explained. “Wehad several dozen local governments in Triad sign on to the earlyaction compact. As of last year, we were judged by [EnvironmentalProtection Agency] to be back in compliance with urban air standards.” Theresults of the early action compact on local air quality are clear. “In2002, we had 31 unhealthy air days in Triad. In 2008, we had three,”Besse said. Last year, however, the EPA raised its clean air standards,which means local governments in the Triad have more work to do. In2007, Besse spearheaded the effort to make sure every new vehiclepurchase by the city is vetted to ensure it gets the most efficientvehicle for the money, and approved the purchase 20 new hybrid citybuses. If he is reelected, Besse said he will continue hisenvironmental agenda by pushing the use of biodiesel in city buses andvehicles, developing tougher stormwater regulations, and pursuing moresidewalks, bike lanes and greenways. Besse is known for hisegalitarian outlook. “I care about helping create opportunity here foreverybody,” Besse said. “There are too many people who grew up here whodon’t have a good job. There are too many parts of our city that stilllack good jobs and attractive development and we need to help them getit.” Besse’s approach to economic development fits perfectly into theoverarching theme of his political career — improving the quality oflife for all citizens. “My vision of the perfect city is aplace that’s clean, green, safe, welcoming to everybody and hasopportunity for everybody,” Besse said.

Besse could face a young Republican challenger in the November general election. TedShipley, a 35-year-old attorney, has filed for the Republicannomination in the Southwest Ward. Besse, 54, is the youngest sittingmember of the council. He said would gladly challenge any youngopponent to a marathon. Earlier this year, Besse — who runs anaverage of four miles a day — competed in the Myrtle Beach Marathon andfinished in 3 hours, 46 minutes. “It’s important for people tojudge each individual race on the merits of the candidates,” he said.“It’s fair to ask, ‘Does Candidate A have the energy and time toserve?’ If they look at my record, they’ll see the answer to that is‘yes.’” Besse has more than just the energy and fortitude to get thejob done. He has something even more important — integrity, said BarryBoneno, a longtime Winston- Salem resident. Boneno said he remembersthe days when the Reynolds and Hanes families ran the city council, andthe “good ol’ boy network.” Boneno said Winston-Salem residents havehad to deal with the fallout of large corporate interests holding swayover the city council. And that is why he supports Dan Besse for citycouncil. “As far as I’m concerned, Dan is the best we’ve had,”Boneno said. “He’s honest, he has integrity, he always leads thedebate, and always has detailed information. Dan does his homeworkbetter than anyone else. I’ve asked him why he does this, but he lovesit. He’s impressed me more than any councilman I’ve ever seen.”