A coronation for youthful change in the East Ward

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nicole little
Nicole Little speaks alongside former Councilman Larry Little at a 2013 protest against the acquittal of George Zimmerman. (courtesy photo)

A young practicing attorney with a background in housing and racial justice activism is the favored candidate to replace Derwin Montgomery as representative of the East Ward on Winston-Salem City Council.

Nicole Little is Montgomery’s hand-picked successor, according to Marva Reid, a community leader with the East Ward Safe Coalition.

“He has shared with some of us who he has selected, and I could not agree more,” Reid said. “She is over-qualified. She has accepted the selection. I’m excited. I’ve worked with her. I’ve protested with her.”

Little earned her law degree from NC Central University in 2017, and graduated from Wake Forest University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2013, according to her LinkedIn profile, which identifies her as a “young and charismatic solo attorney, practicing in areas of criminal defense family law, landlord-tenant, and civil litigation.” Little could not be reached for this story. An automated message from work email indicated that she will be out of the office on maternity leave through Sept. 24.

Montgomery declined to confirm that he’s asked Little to fill his seat.

“I’m still not going to make any comment on potential successors; I want that to flow up from the community,” Montgomery said. “If folks in the community are supportive of specific individuals, that’s where it needs to come from. I have my thoughts, but I will reserve my thoughts until a later date.”

Winston-Salem City Council will consider a resolution establishing a process for selecting someone to fill out the remainder of Montgomery’s term through 2020 at its next meeting on Monday. Montgomery is vacating his seat on city council after accepting the Democratic Party nomination on Aug. 12 to replace Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., who abruptly announced his retirement from the state House. The proposed process allows Montgomery to nominate and vote on his successor prior to resigning from city council, according to the resolution under consideration for adoption on Monday.

Under the proposed resolution, which was drafted by Mayor Allen Joines, Montgomery would submit a letter of resignation effective a future date, the city would advertise the vacancy for 14 days and accept applications from interested candidates who reside in the East Ward, and council members would review the applications. Then, at a special meeting, council members would nominate one or more candidates from the applications. If more than one candidate were nominated, the council would take a vote and the candidate with majority support would be appointed to fill out the remainder of Montgomery’s term. If more than two candidates were nominated, a first-round ballot would winnow the field down to two candidates. The two finalists would each make a 10-minute presentation and answer questions from council members.

Some Democratic leaders in the East Ward view the process as an end-run around the will residents.

“This is unjust; it’s a disenfranchisement of the voters of the East Ward by them not having a way to participate in their own representation,” said Phillip Carter, who serves as 2nd vice chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party and also as chair of Precinct 404, covering East Winston and a portion of downtown. Carter unsuccessfully challenged Montgomery in 2013, and said he plans to put his name forward as a candidate to fill the vacancy.

Sean Hawkins, the Democratic chair for precinct 402 — hugging New Walkertown Road — echoed Carter’s concern.

“It should be a special election where it’s not decided from the city council perspective,” Hawkins said. “The perspective should come from the voters or the people. I really believe if it’s done in a way that’s fair and just, the results will not only be better but more acceptable.”

But not everyone in the ward is unhappy with the proposed process.

James Lewis, Democratic chair for Precinct 405 — straddling Highway 52 just south of the Business 40 interchange, and including Winston-Salem State University and the Happy Hills neighborhood — said he trusts city council to make the right decision. He added one caveat: If vacancies on city council come up again, he wants to see the same process followed. That is in the realm of possibility. Dan Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, is running for state House. His colleague DD Adams, who represents the North Ward, is running for Congress. An election victory for either of them in November would result in vacancies in their respective wards.

State law gives city council wide latitude to determine how to fill a vacancy when a member resigns. One of the few requirements is that the person appointed must be registered with the same political party as the departing representative because Winston-Salem elects its city council through a partisan voting scheme.

The last time a vacancy occurred on the city governing board, then known as the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen, was in 2001, when West Ward Alderman Bob Northington resigned. In that instance, the Forsyth County Republican Party nominated his replacement, although the board of alderman ratified the decision through an official vote. The local parties have similarly nominated replacements to fill vacancies on the Forsyth County Commission and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board in recent years, with the affected boards approving the party selections.

Joycelyn Johnson, who represented the East Ward from 1993 to 2009, when she was unseated in an upset by Montgomery, said she is still weighing a decision of whether to step forward as a candidate to fill her former opponent’s unexpired term.

“Several people have asked,” she said. “I really enjoy what I’m doing now. I have not made a confirmed decision.”

Johnson said she believes the person who accepts appointment to fill the unexpired term should commit to not run for the seat in 2020 to allow for an open election without one candidate enjoying the advantage of incumbency. She also said the city and the Democratic Party should coordinate a forum to ensure that residents have an opportunity to hear from candidates.

Although the resolution under consideration on Monday makes no mention of a role for the Democratic Party, Montgomery said he is open to input.

“I would think that anyone who comes forward with a recommendation of support from a diverse group of people who reside in the East Ward, that would carry a lot of credibility,” Montgomery said.

Eric Ellison, the chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party, indicated he was not familiar with the proposed plan for selecting Montgomery’s replacement when contacted for this story on Friday.

“We understand that they are not required by law to consult with us,” he said. “The Democratic Party believes in the value of openness and disclosure and getting as much input as possible. We would hope to be at least included in that conversation to get good input from all parties.”

Montgomery’s transition off city council represents a paradox: His popularity with both voters and his colleagues on council gives him the clout to essentially name his successor, but after almost a decade on council his political brand still projects youthful change. The three-term council member made history as the youngest member of council when he was elected in 2009 as a 21-year-old senior at Winston-Salem State University.

For Marva Reid, one of the Montgomery’s most fervent supporters, calls for more community involvement in the appointment process look like the old guard trying to reassert itself. Reid noted that under Montgomery’s watch, the city has acquired and begun renovations on the old Union Station transit hub, and a swimming pool, lazy river and children’s water playground has opened at Winston Lake Park. She said the city has demonstrated more transparency on issues from planning to policing since Montgomery took office. Young entrepreneurs are starting businesses in the ward for the first time in a long while, she said.

“I swam, I had safe youth centers when I grew up here,” Reid said. “I came back and there was nothing. No, you’re not going to do that. You’re not going to put those antiquated people back in. If you can’t build a website when they give it to you for free, then you can’t deal with the global world today. We need youth. Now it’s time to let these young people build this community. I don’t want nobody my age to come back on council.”

Nicole Little changed her voter registration on Aug. 15 to a rental house in the Dreamland neighborhood in the East Ward. Previously, she was registered to vote at an apartment in the Southwest Ward. Prior to that, she was registered at another address in the East Ward.

In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges in the death of Travyon Martin, Little organized a protest that drew hundreds of people.

“I’ve worked with her on different projects,” Reid said. “As a student, she would attend Councilman Montgomery’s meetings. She was always active with him. She worked at Cleveland Avenue Homes with the people over there. She’s done quite a lot, and just like Barack Obama she was the president of the bar association at her school and she graduated with honors. She’s a practicing attorney. She’s overqualified for this position. She not only grew up down the street in Reynoldstown, she relocated to the general area. A lot of people have opted to leave. She has the passion that I have for the East Ward.”

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