by Brian Clarey

The Black Panther’s Party

Things are quiet on Okalina Avenue, quiet and dark when I pull my car across the street from the one house on the block that’s brightly lit and ready for action.

In the backyard, the lawn is lit for a party, with chairs set for almost a hundred. Off the deck, a hot tub bubbles softly.

It’s the night of the Winston-Salem City Council primary election, and here, in the heart of the city’s Northeast Ward, surrounded by friends and family and his political mentor Larry Little, who owns the house, incumbent Derwin Montgomery will celebrate his first re-election.

But not yet.

In Greensboro, people in the know watch election returns roll in at the old Guilford County Courthouse — a great place for a reporter on deadline to nail down a boatload of quotes from candidates and supporters as the results crystallize. That’s not how they do it in Winston-Salem. Out here, everybody’s on their own.

Mayor Allen Joines will watch his convincing win against challenger Gardenia Henley from his campaign headquarters on Liberty Street. Newcomer Jeff McIntosh will be at the Twin City Diner with retiring Northwest Ward Wanda Merschel when he learns he’ll be her successor as the heavily-favored Democratic candidate on Election Day.

Another difference between the two elections: Because Winston-Salem’s municipal election, unlike Greensboro’s, is partisan, just one Democrat and one Republican can face off in each ward on Election Day. The wards are drawn with solid constituencies, and there are no at-large seats so the only citywide election is in the mayor’s race. In Winston-Salem, pretty much everything is decided in the primary. Still, just 3.7 percent of the electorate turned out for it in 2009. And with low numbers, anything can happen.

Montgomery, a Democrat, won his seat in 2009, when he was still a student at Winston-Salem State University. In the primary, he beat incumbent Democrat Joycelyn Johnson, who had held office since 1993, by nabbing 440 early votes, mostly from his fellow students. It was over before the polls opened.

He faces Johnson again tonight. And he’s no longer a fixture on the WSSU campus, though he’ll still likely draw votes from that precinct. He’s running this year on his record, four solid years in which he’s maintained a fairly high profile and close contact with his constituency. Little, his former professor, has remained a close friend and advisor.

Both came under fire recently when news surfaced that Little allowed Montgomery to address his WSSU political science class, and allowed early dismissal so students could vote. Montgomery happened to have transportation to the polls on hand.

Right now, MeMe Kirby fries fish in a kettle in the side yard of Larry Little’s house, the drinks are chilling on ice and the rest of the food, laid out on Little’s dining room table, still sits under cover.

The polls closed about half an hour ago. Plenty of time before the final votes come in. Montgomery, scrolling through the returns on an iPad mini, notes that he nabbed 422 out of 577 in early and absentee voting. Johnson got 132 and a third candidate, Phil Carter, managed to secure 48. Montgomery thinks another 575 came to the polls today.

On the back deck, Little stands to greet newcomers with Montgomery at his side. Montgomery’s father, David, a pastor from Columbia, SC, made the trip into town to watch the final throes of the re-election effort. His son’s political career still surprises him.

“I thought he was gonna be a salesman,” Montgomery’s father says.

And then it’s time.

Pastor Montgomery gathers the small group in Little’s kitchen for a prayer of protection for his son, thanks for the food, gratitude that we are all here together, right now. Derwin announces that he’s won the 14th Street Recreation Center precinct, a key polling place in his district, 157-61.

On the deck, it’s time for some James Brown. Little and the Godfather of Soul had a special relationship back in he day, when Little was running the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panthers. Brown himself cut Little a $4,000 check for the free ambulance service the Winston-Salem Panthers started for the black community in 1974. Little remembers that James Brown had trouble spelling the word “ambulance.”

Little and his charge sit in lounge chairs on the deck, side by side, easier now that the precinct results are coming in and things are going Derwin’s way.

“He’s got it,” says a friend and campaign worker Dijorn Anderson, a current student at Winston-Salem State.

But Derwin’s not ready to call it — he says he needs the Winston Lake Family YMCA to secure his hold.

“But even if we split that,” he says, “I think we’re there.”

Little is more encouraged by the returns.

“She thought she was gonna whip you the old-fashioned way?” he’s saying. “Out to the woodshed?”

And then it’s George Clinton and his crew on the stereo, reminding us that everybody’s got a little light under the sun, under the sun, under the sun. Derwin Montgomery takes Winston Lake 127-64. The hot tub bubbles with anticipation.

Little stands and gathers the group, which is starting to swell with supporters and well-wishers.

“It’s over now,” he says. “The community has spoken. Forward, not one step back.”

There’s still Election Day to contend with — in 2009, Johnson mounted a write-in campaign that garnered 9 percent of the vote, and Montgomery thinks she’ll likely try again.

“We sure have to make sure our people get out,” he says.

But the heavy lifting is done, and Montgomery settles into the victory party that is growing by the minute. The hot tub beckons.