Where Are They Now?: The Gang of Five
Today, the biggest threat to public arts funding in Charlotte is the economy, but fourteen years ago it was a group of Mecklenburg County commissioners who became known as the Gang of Five. In the wake of controversy over Charlotte Repertory Theater's 1996 staging of Angels in America, a Pulitzer-winning play about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, these five members of the nine-member board voted in 1997 to strip the Arts & Science Council of its $2.5 million annual county contribution. The controversy generated venomous rhetoric on both sides and garnered national attention for Charlotte, which had been burnishing its reputation as a progressive New South city.
The Group, left to right: Bill Lee, Ed Crutchfield, Rolfe Neill, John Belk, Hugh McColl Jr. / The Gang of Five: Joel Carter, Tom Bush, Hoyle Martin, George Higgins, Bill James.
After the 1998 election, only one of the Gang of Five remained on the county board (voters ousted two others, and two weren't on the ballot), and in 2005 the Rep folded after years of financial struggle.
Last year, the Actor's Theatre of Charlotte staged Southern Rapture, a satiric comedy based on the episode that was received well and without controversy. This year, the county budget includes only $150,000 for the ASC — not because of a political controversy, but rather a massive revenue shortfall.
The only Gang member who remains a Mecklenburg County commissioner, Bill James has been reelected handily every two years by voters in his south Mecklenburg district. He continues to express his ultra-conservative views unabashedly -and sometimes offensively. Last year he referred to a fellow commissioner's son — who was gay and died of HIV-AIDS — as a "homo." Having no ballot opposition this year, he will be elected to his eighth term on the county board this fall.
Lawyer Tom Bush left political office after a failed bid for Congress in 1998. Divorced and remarried, he now focuses on his law practice and church-based work comanaging a soup kitchen for the homeless. He says he doesn't regret his 1997 vote but that the debate became about the morality of homosexuality and not about the appropriate role of government in funding the arts. He doesn't rule out running for Congress again one day.
Hoyle Martin has been a professor at Charlotte's New Life Theological Seminary for a decade. Originally the lone Democrat in the group, he switched his voter registration to unaffiliated after the controversy, and he says he deplores the lack of bipartisanship in politics today. At the age of eight-three, he reports that he does twenty push-ups and runs three miles most every day and enjoys roller-skating with his grandchildren.
Defeated for reelection in 1998, George Higgins recently said he was too busy watching the Animal Planet channel to talk to a reporter about what he's up to these days. We're told he retired from his job with New York Life and still lives in south Charlotte with his wife.
Joel Carter, who also lost a reelection bid in 1998, moved two years ago to Avery County, the North Carolina mountain community where he grew up. He says he spends his days riding his motorcycle, hunting bear and elk, and buying and selling real estate. Two things he vows: never to return to live in Mecklenburg County and never to shave off his trademark handlebar mustache.