The center holds in Winston-Salem politics

by Jordan Green

Winston-Salem voters signaled satisfaction with the current direction of the city last week, giving resounding support to Mayor Allen Joines in his Democratic primary and overall strong support for incumbent ward representatives of both parties.

An anti-downtown backlash anticipated and hoped for by supporters of challenger Carolyn Highsmith failed to take hold, with incumbent Molly Leight sweeping 72 percent of the vote. And murmurs of dissatisfaction with Vivian Burke’s 36-year incumbency in the Northeast Ward proved idle, as she corralled 53.8 percent of the vote with strong turnout from the powerhouse precinct of the Mazie Woodruff Center.

The Joines and Leight campaigns coordinated with each other in the South Ward, with their respective pollworkers talking up the other candidate. Voters like the fit, with Leight carrying not only her home precinct at Diggs-Latham Elementary, with 93.2 percent, but also the precinct at Parkland High School, with 71.8 percent —’ a suburban area where voters might be expected to be less impressed with the resurgence of downtown.

The only precincts carried by Highsmith were Philo Middle School in the Konnoak Hills area, where she leads her neighborhood organization, and Griffith Fire Station on the Davidson County line. Highsmith carried Philo Middle School in a 2009 write-in campaign, while Nathan Jones —’ Leight’s Republican opponent in the upcoming general election — carried Griffith Fire Station four years ago in a write-in campaign of his own. Last week’s primary results demonstrated that any disaffection by South Ward voters with Leight’s representation remains contained. At the precinct for First Alliance Church, where Highsmith courted voters with a mailer, Leight still carried 58.9 percent of the vote.

“The voters ratified the council’s focus on economic development,” said Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse, a Democrat who did not face a primary. “I think also that we on council have been successful in showing that the projects we’ve backed even when they are in the downtown area are to the economic benefit of the whole city. I like to emphasize that when I look at incentives or infrastructure development for a project, I look at more than whether it will benefit the area where it’s located. The question is whether it will create a net return for the city as a whole.”

The next council, likely a Democratic supermajority with one or two Republican members, will continue to debate public investments such as the proposed Urban Circulator and downtown Theatre District concept that was recently unveiled.

“We also have projects going on around the city — both economic efforts like the Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas program and direct services projects like streets and sidewalks,” Besse said. “We wouldn’t be able to do those service projects if we didn’t have the revenue coming in from economic activity areas such as downtown.”

Mike Horn, a political consultant with the Vela Agency who is working on Joines’ reelection campaign, said he sees the returns as affirmation that voters approve the council’s track record on economic development.

“I think we’ve come through a very difficult time with this recession, but I think this particular council has really done everything they can to get this city on the right road to recovery,” he said. “I think folks appreciate that. Nobody’s going to agree with every decision that the council makes, but the fact that the incumbents received so much support says folks agree with the general direction of where they’re trying to take the city.”

While the eight ward representatives who serve on committees that write the annual budget, promote housing and community development, and oversee public safety and garbage pickup, hash out the policy, the mayor —’ who only votes to break ties — is the city’s public face.

“When you have someone who works as hard to show up as he does to community events and activities and all the community appearances that he does every year, you’re going to make an impression as a mayor who really cares about the community,” Horn said of Joines.

“I think if you look at the reception that he received when he was at the polls everybody recognize him,” Horn continued. “Everybody came up and wanted to have their picture taken. They nodded and said, ‘You have my vote.’ He’s a mayor people know. The corollary is that he’s a mayor people trust.”

Joines won with 88.5 percent of the vote and carried every precinct. Challenger Gardenia Henley, whose campaign focused on unsubstantiated charges of corruption in city government while nipping at Joines’ economic-development record, failed to muster more than 30 percent in any precinct. She performed the strongest in the Northeast Ward, her home, and where she managed Burke’s reelection campaign in 2009. She also made a dent in Joines’ totals in two East Ward precincts, East Winston Heritage Center and John F. Kennedy High School, where she carried 29.0 and 24.3 percent of the vote respectively.

“The mayor enjoys significant, almost overwhelming support throughout the city,” Horn observed.

Horn said the Joines campaign worked to use Democratic primaries in the Northeast, Northwest, South, Southeast and East wards to its advantage, while sending out mailers in the West and Southwest wards where Democratic voters had no other reason to show up at the polls considering that there were no Democratic primaries in the ward races. The campaign also targeted unaffiliated voters, who have the option of voting either ticket but typically sit out primaries.

The strategy evidently worked, considering strong turnout for the Democratic mayoral primary the West Ward. The Democratic primary drew more votes than the Republican primary in one precinct —’ at Whitaker Elementary, in the heart of elite Buena Vista.

Incumbent Robert Clark defended his seat in the Republican primary for the West Ward. Similar to the Democratic primary in the South Ward, Clark performed best in the high turnout precincts closest to the city center. Clark carried all the precincts east of Peace Haven Road, while 32-year-old newcomer Andrew Johnson carried Calvary Baptist Church, Meadowlark Middle School and Greek Orthodox Church — all geographically outlying precincts with relatively low turnout.

In the Northwest Ward — the one open race in the primaries —’ an incumbent-like candidate prevailed. Jeff MacIntosh — who earned the endorsement of the ward’s current representative, Wanda Merschel — carried every precinct, except the statistically insignificant Mission Hispana.

Besse said he expects the Northwest Ward, where Republican Lida Hayes-Calvert will meet MacIntosh in the general election, to be the most competitive, owing to the breakdown of party registration.

“I expect the Northwest Ward to be the most vigorously contested,” Besse said. “It’s a swing district demographically, and the Republican candidate is capable of self-financing at a high level.”

Hayes-Calvert characterized herself as a conservative alternative to MacIntosh.

“I hope that [message] reaches out to Democrats that want to save money and the Republicans,” she said. “I want to speak to both sides. I think everyone wants to save money and cut out wasteful spending.”

The only surprise in the Southeast Ward primary, where incumbent James Taylor Jr. defended his seat against fellow Democrat Bill Tatum, was the lopsided vote —’ 88.1 percent to 11.9 percent.

East Ward incumbent Derwin Montgomery’s landslide against challenger Joycelyn Johnson, who held the seat from 1993 to 2009, was more startling. In 2009, Montgomery carried only one precinct, encompassing Winston-Salem State University —’ where he was a student at the time. This time, Montgomery carried every single precinct in the Ward, with the exception of one on the Davidson County line where only four votes were cast, winning 63.8 percent of the vote, compared to 27.2 percent by Johnson and 9.0 percent by a third candidate, Phil Carter.

If Sims Recreation Center, the precinct that includes Winston-Salem State University, had been removed from the tally, Montgomery still would have bested Johnson, 57.1 percent to 32.2 percent.

“I have been impressed with Derwin Montgomery’s performance since he was elected,” said the councilman’s colleague, Dan Besse. “He has learned and developed as a public servant very quickly. Even though I like and admire Joycelyn Johnson, I was not surprised to see Derwin win big. That was a referendum both on him as an individual and his focus. He made economic development benefiting the people of his district a priority, and his constituents responded accordingly.

“That was his test politically: Could he four years later show that his job performance had penetrated throughout his district?” Besse concluded. “And the answer was yes.”