The unlikely politician
Besse’s soft-spoken, cerebral style the cornerstone of his success
Dan Besse always has time for a constituent. Sitting in a small café off Hawthorne Road, the two-term Winston-Salem City Councilman spots a resident of the city’s Ardmore neighborhood placing his coffee order. Moments later, Besse returns to the table with John Cardarelli, a precinct chair for the Forsyth County Democratic Party. Cardarelli said he supports Besse, a Democrat, because “he has a good vision and he doesn’t give up on that vision.” Cardarelli cited Besse’s work on the tree ordinance passed by the city council on July 20 as a perfect example of the councilman’s relentless approach to issues that matter most to his constituents. Cardarelli said it’s no coincidence the resolution adopted by the council was titled the “Besse Compromise.” “That’s a sign of good leadership: He’s persistent,” Cardarelli said. Under the adopted ordinance, new development in the city will be required to conserve either 10 percent or 12 percent of the property’s total area for green space. The language of the tree ordinance is simple but getting all stakeholders to agree on the language proved to be anything but. Melynda Dunigan, a former president of the Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance, worked closely with Besse during his attempt to get the first tree ordinance passed 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 find common ground on the issue. “The parties were not in agreement and what Dan was able to do shows his leadership,” Dunigan said. “He took the version that the staff proposed and took the version the planning board approved and made his own compromise version — a composite of those two versions. He fashioned something workable and met the objective of preserving trees in the city and satisfied all parties. 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’s journey in politics began more than 40 years ago at the age of 13. A seventh-grader at Hickory Junior High, Besse made campaign calls for Glenn Hilton, a Hickory city councilman. Besse said his motivation to get involved in politics was borne out of his passion for environmental issues. He was fed up with the Hickory City Council for not protecting the forest surrounding Lake Hickory and for selling the timber rights the previous year. That’s when he jumped into the political arena. Besse recalls that first political phone call, and how he had to overcome his natural shyness. “I’m not a natural extrovert so doing things like calling strangers on the phone and knocking on doors has always been tough,” Besse said. “It’s a stretch for me — going to events and introducing 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 though I’m not a natural, I’ve practiced for years,” he said. “The key is listening to what people have to say; if they’re comfortable and they can 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’re concerned about. And if you can speak knowledgeably about the issues they’re concerned about, they’ll remember you.” A graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, Besse entered public service by working on several state commissions, including the NC Coastal Resources Commission and the NC Environmental Management Commission. In 1998, he ran as the Democratic nominee for NC House, losing to incumbent Republican Lyons Gray. In 2001, Besse achieved his goal of elected office, winning a city council seat to represent Winston-Salem’s Southwest Ward. Last year, Besse mounted a campaign for lieutenant governor, but finished fourth in the May 6 Democratic primary. He is running for his third term on the city council. His environmental advocacy stems from his belief that protecting water and air is the foundation for a good quality of life. Besse cites the city council’s role in joining a regional early action compact, which was created under EPA authority to involve local governments in clean-up program in the area as one of his biggest achievements to date.