Winston-Salem primary races shape up in east and west wards

by Jordan Green

Newcomers wait in wings in northeast and northwest

East Ward Winston-Salem City Councilman Derwin Montgomery showed up at the Forsyth County Board of Elections 40 minutes before filing officially opened on July 5. Minutes later, Brenda Diggs, a candidate for the Northeast Ward seat, arrived with an entourage of 18 family members, friends and supporters.

“Derwin, you’ve done this before,” Diggs said to Montgomery, “but this is a history-making moment for me.”

If Diggs was suggesting she wanted the honor of being the first to file, Montgomery didn’t take the hint.

Montgomery, a 24-year-old pastor, is headed into a rematch with Joycelyn Johnson, who held the East Ward seat from 1993 to 2009. At the time of the last election, Montgomery was a student at Winston-Salem State University, and he mobilized heavy turnout among students in early voting to blindside Johnson. The two Democrats face off this year in the primary election, which is scheduled for Sept. 10.

Through his first term, Montgomery has broadened his political base through constituent meetings with seniors, pastors and neighborhood groups.

Montgomery has joined Mayor Allen Joines and other council members in supporting economic development on the eastern flank of downtown, including the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter and the new Salem Creek Connector. And, as representative of the East Ward, Montgomery likes to talk about matching employment needs of his constituents with the jobs that will be filled at the research park, along with positioning the depressed neighborhoods to the east to take advantage of the growth. But Montgomery has stood up to his fellow council members on occasion, particularly when they declined to intervene in a legal appeal by Kalvin Michael Smith, a black man who was convicted of brutally beating a store clerk in the 1990s through evidence developed in a deeply flawed police investigation.

Johnson is a respected community leader who has volunteered as an officer in the Forsyth County Democratic Party and currently serves as community engagement co-chair of Creative Corridors Coalition. Earlier this year, Johnson mobilized property owners to protest property appraisals by the county tax department that severely reduced values in east-side neighborhoods. Speaking out during a community meeting, Johnson was able to obtain an agreement from Tax Assessor John Burgiss to extend the deadline for informal appeals.

Johnson highlights many of the same priorities as Montgomery, and takes partial credit for the initiatives her opponent champions, such as the Salem Creek Connector and encouraging area school children to develop the kind of science skills that will help them qualify for jobs at the research park. She said she is also proud of her work with fellow council members to convert 4 th and 5 th streets from one- to two-way and build BB&T Ballpark.

The election’s most suspenseful element hinges on whether Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who has served on council since 1977, will seek reelection. Burke did not return calls for this story.

Diggs, the only candidate to file so far in the Northeast Ward, has the kind of business and civic background that sets her apart from other political neophytes. The 65-year-old candidate is a retired employee of Wachovia Bank, and has chaired United Way campaigns. She currently chairs the city’s police officers’ retirement commission.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, the Northwest Ward representative, has announced that she will not seek reelection.

Merschel’s retirement clears the way for Jeff MacIntosh, a realtor with Leonard Ryden Burr who helped Merschel in previous campaigns. MacIntosh launched his campaign on Monday in a small park next to the Milton Rhodes Arts Center — only blocks away from the Holly Avenue neighborhood he and his wife helped revitalize after they bought their house in the early 1980s. Through their neighborhood advocacy, the couple quickly became acquainted with the police and their elected representatives on what was then known as the board of aldermen. Since then, Jeff MacIntosh has served on the Mayor’s Select Capital Needs Committee and other local boards.

“Preservation is important as an economic-development tool,” MacIntosh said. “It’s important from a who-we-areand-where-we’ve-been standpoint, but it’s also important to expanding the tax base, which benefits all of us.”

The marquee contest, by definition, is the mayoral race, but it’s far from the most interesting.

Allen Joines, who is seeking his fourth term as mayor, has cultivated loyalty across the city and promoted an agenda of economic development and downtown revitalization that has drawn support from the entire council. An effective fundraiser, Joines reported $192,953 in cash on hand in December 2012, when his most recent filing was made to the board of elections. Thus far, he has not attracted a Republican challenger.

Gardenia Henley, an unsuccessful candidate for governor and NC House who has raised questions about public integrity in the Winston-Salem Sanitation Department and county board of elections, filed on Monday to square off against Joines in the Democratic primary.

“Obviously, our economic recovery, although it’s progressing, it’s fragile,” Joines said. “I want to keep focusing on the creation of jobs in the community. I also want to concentrate effort on the greater East Winston community related to middle-income housing, and retail and office development.”

While Democratic candidates jockey for position in the East and Northeast wards, the lone Republican on council has drawn a primary challenger of his own.

Howard Hudson, a retired lawyer, said he is running because incumbent Robert Clark voted for two successive tax increases and supported “some questionable, even frivolous” capital spending projects.

Clark has argued that even though the tax levy is a rate increase, it amounts to a cut because 70 percent of property owners will see their tax bills lowered under the recent revaluation. As to investments in a shooting range for law enforcement personnel and hybrid-fuel buses Hudson is challenging, Clark said they saved the city money in the long run.

Clark noted that he was the only council member to vote against acquisition of Davis Garage and a street-car study. In other respects, his agenda fits comfortably with that of his Democratic colleagues.

“I continue to run on a platform of bringing good jobs to this city,” Clark said. “We’ve done a good job over the past 12 years. It’s something you can never let up on.”