Our endorsements: Winston-Salem City Council primary elections

by the YES! Weekly Staff

Democratic voters will select the next council member for the East Ward and Republicans will choose the next representative in the West Ward with no cross-party opposition in November. In most other wards, the Democratic primary winners are heavily favored to win the general election because of a strong party advantage in voter registration.


The primary issues for Winston- Salem voters are jobs and economic development. Under the leadership of Mayor Allen Joines, the city has pursued a strategy of building biotech on top of the dominant healthcare industry and adding restaurant and hospitality jobs through a resurgent downtown, with a dash of recruitment through corporate incentives.

The city has a long way to go before it replaces the solid, middle-class jobs lost through evisceration of Reynolds Tobacco and Hanesbrands, and poverty and hunger remain at scandalous levels alongside a stubborn wealth gap with racialized contours. While there is reason for discontent with Winston- Salem’s economic picture, no one has presented a credible alternative.

Joines’ challenger in the primary, Gardenia Henley, has made a game effort. A retired auditor with the US Agency for International Development, Henley returned to her hometown and ran for NC House in 2010. Building on her career with the government uncovering waste and abuse, Henley has raised numerous public-integrity concerns. In that regard, she’s had both hits and misses.

Henley’s platform addressed economic development in glancing fashion by promoting a buy-local ordinance and focus on small business.

That strikes us as a false choice: With few exceptions, the beneficiaries of incentives programs — corporate giants such as Caterpillar — don’t compete with local businesses and, in fact, support them by putting more employees on the payroll whose incomes cycle back through the local economy. And the city has invested funds clawed back from Dell in the Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas program, which matches private investments to restore struggling retail centers.

Joines is smart to recognize that a glittering citadel in downtown is not enough. As he has noted throughout the campaign: “The health and vitality of Winston-Salem will not be measured by the quality of life of just a few neighborhoods. No, it’s going to be measured by the fact that every neighborhood and every corner of our city will see revitalization and progress.”

We endorse Allen Joines for mayor.

Northeast Ward

It’s time for a change in the Northeast Ward after 36 years of representation by incumbent Vivian Burke.

With either of the two challengers, Brenda Diggs and Jemmise Bowen, northeast Winston-Salem voters would be well served; both would help build stronger citizen engagement to enable more accountable leadership.

In both style and substance, the two candidates offer voters starkly different value propositions. Diggs is a retired banking executive with experience in nonprofit governance and an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Bowen comes across as a down-to-earth neighborhood activist. A shelter monitor at the Salvation Army, Bowen has put in the time doing voter outreach for the Democratic Party long before she decided to run for office.

But Diggs, whose economic development vision is more closely aligned with Joines, gets the edge. She understands that promoting the new biotech economy while working with Forsyth Tech to train workers to fill the new jobs is key to building prosperity. We can’t afford to miss the mark. Bowen is to be commended for proposing new economic ideas, but they need to be refined and tested before they’re ready for primetime. We hope and expect to hear more from Bowen in the future.

We endorse Brenda Diggs in the Northeast Ward.

East Ward

In Derwin Montgomery and Joycelyn Johnson, Democratic voters in the East Ward have two extremely qualified candidates who are both smart and highly committed to public service. A third candidate, Phil Carter, is a grassroots community activist who has done commendable work.

Johnson represented the East Ward from 1993 to 2009, earning a well-deserved reputation as a strong voice for addressing the economic underdevelopment of the black community. Ironically, a Winston-Salem State University student named Derwin Montgomery outmaneuvered Johnson in 2009 while asking how the disparities between one side of the city and the other could be so severe.

Since losing her seat, Johnson has effectively represented her community by mobilizing homeowners to appeal rock-bottom property tax revaluations. But the 25-year-old Montgomery has distinguished himself on council in his first term. He quickly instituted regular roundtable meetings in the community with seniors and pastors, and contributes thoughtful discussion to council deliberations. And he regularly shows up where it counts, speaking out not only on the revaluations issue, but also against the racial profiling of Trayvon Martin and the proposed Duke Energy rate hike.

We endorse Derwin Montgomery in the East Ward.

Southeast Ward

James Taylor Jr.’s unseating of Evelyn Terry four years ago mirrors the Montgomery-Johnson storyline. In his first term the 32-year-old Taylor has frequently held community meetings in his working-class ward. He listens to his constituents, as evidenced by his leadership in getting the council to pass a resolution against the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Taylor’s Democratic challenger, Bill Tatum, has solid community service credentials through his past leadership of the Winston-Salem NAACP and other endeavors, but he hasn’t made a strong case for change.

We endorse James Taylor Jr. in the Southeast Ward.

South Ward

Democrat Molly Leight unseated archconservative Vernon Robinson in 2005. She acknowledges she didn’t have many specific goals during the campaign; the election more or less constituted an emergency heart transplant for the ward. Unlike colleagues such as Dan Besse, who pushes the mayor to be more progressive on public transit and the environment, or Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor Jr., who broke with him on the handling of the Kalvin Michael Smith case, Leight rarely strays from the Allen Joines fold. She asked at a recent candidate forum: “Did we write the script together?” Community leader Carolyn Highsmith has run an insurgent campaign, arguing that residents in the outlying neighborhoods far beyond Old Salem and the UNC School of the Arts haven’t had a voice on council. Highsmith has a strong track record of community leadership, from her involvement in the South Suburban Area Plan, to partnerships with the police to curb crime and addressing the property tax revaluation. Democratic and unaffiliated voters should give her a chance.

We endorse Carolyn Highsmith in the South Ward.

Southwest Ward

The Republican primary in the Southwest Ward can be billed as “Shaw versus the No-Show.” Perennial candidate Donald T. Shaw is a cantankerous oddball, while Robert Bultman is running a “grassroots” campaign that apparently involves boycotting questionnaires and candidate forums. We don’t recommend either candidate. West Ward Incumbent Robert Clark, 58, has attracted two challengers in the West Ward: Howard Hudson, a 68-year-old bank lawyer, and Andrew Johnson, a 32-year-old adjuster.

A moderate Republican chamber-of-commerce type, Clark is essentially part of the governing coalition with the eight Democrats on council that has promoted biotech, used incentives to recruit industry, built the ballpark and otherwise boosted the downtown arts and restaurant scene. Hudson is a conscientious fiscal conservative. Johnson is an eager, young candidate with boilerplate conservative ideas.

In addition to being solid on policy, the incumbent handles public service with an approachable, informed and candid style that should be emulated by more elected officials.

We endorse Robert Clark in the West Ward.

Northwest Ward

The Northwest Ward primary presents Democrats (and unaffiliated voters) with a tough choice. Laura Elliott, a pastor and former executive at Experiment in Self Reliance with banking experience, would easily land our endorsement if the field wasn’t so competitive. She’s one of only a handful of candidates across the city emphasizing diversity and inclusion, and understands that economic development is key to providing decent livelihoods for all residents while, conversely, social justice is an important underpinning for a broad-based prosperity.

Almost every candidate supports raises for police officers and firefighters, but Elliott is the only one who said she would consider raises for sanitation laborers. No wonder she’s received endorsements from organized labor.

But short of Dan Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, Jeff MacIntosh might be the smartest guy running for city council. A realtor, MacIntosh and his wife helped bring their Holly Avenue community back from the brink, in the process learning how city services can play a role in keeping neighborhoods viable. He understands that public investments, made strategically, can drive economic growth.

MacIntosh is approachable, thoughtful and collaborative. He would make an excellent addition to city council.

Noah Reynolds, a scion of the tobacco family, has also made waves as a candidate. With due respect, Winston- Salem doesn’t need a council member who cloaks himself in the mantle of his powerful family or champions the Northwest Ward as the “heart” of the city.

We endorse Jeff MacIntosh by a nose in the Northwest Ward.