Councilman Derwin Montgomery surprises supporters and opponents with a concession to allow the Democratic Party to play a role in selecting the next representative of the East Ward on Winston-Salem City Council.

Derwin Montgomery, the popular Winston-Salem City Council member who is moving up to the state House, bowed to pressure from community leaders to yield responsibility for naming his immediate successor as representative of the East Ward to the Forsyth County Democratic Party.

The motion made by Montgomery, which city council unanimously approved on Monday, followed a two-week tussle over who would control the appointment. After hearing concerns from East Ward residents, council members had rescinded an earlier decision which would have allowed council members to nominate and vote for candidates who applied for the position. That plan, presented by Mayor Allen Joines, would likely have resulted in Montgomery’s hand-selection of the next council member, considering his colleagues’ deference to the popular councilman who will soon have influence over the outcome of items on the council’s legislative agenda.

The plan for filling the vacancy adopted by council on Monday entrusts the county party with forwarding a candidate for city council’s consideration through an open nominating process and a vote of party officers who live in the East Ward. But the resolution adopted by council also includes a second step of requesting enabling legislation from General Assembly to allow for a special election with both a primary and general election to fill the seat until the next regular election in 2021. The candidate appointed through the party recommendation would serve only until the conclusion of the special election.

“I’ve had conversation with both Republican and Democratic members of our delegation and they have stated that this is something they would support to amend the charter to allow the city to have this special provision to allow for a special election because it is the most democratic process to allow for a full-fledged special election,” Montgomery said.

The plan to temporarily fill the vacancy through a nominee recommended by the Democratic Party follows a precedent in which the council approved a recommendation from the Republican Party to fill a vacancy in the West Ward in 2001. In both cases, the decision is turned over to the party of the member who is being replaced.

East Ward residents who have advocated for the Democratic Party to play a role in the selection process expressed pleasant surprise at the new plan put forward by Montgomery.

“What I see tonight deeply restored my faith in all of you,” East Ward resident Dee Washington said.

“Now the job is to make sure the Democratic Party does that caucusing that they were committing to,” she added. “What I want to say to the council is, ‘Thank you for listening.’ This is how the process works — that the people speak, the council listens, and we work together to ensure democracy.”

Marva Reid, a community leader in the East Ward who had enthusiastically backed the previous plan, expressed measured support.

“I feel like the candidates would be okay, and the best candidate will win,” Reid said. “We ask that you be strong and stand for what you actually believe and do not fall prey to fearmongers. I’ve seen this body do that before. We must not take our Democratic Party into upheaval. We must remain focused on our November elections. I’ve seen so much in this past month of this group tainting young minds. It just bothers me when Councilman Montgomery has done such an outstanding job of bringing in millennials into the East Ward that have set up businesses, and we would like to have someone that can work cohesively with a new House of Representatives…. There are some very competent millennials that can keep the East Ward going into the right direction. We will approve however Councilman Montgomery wishes.”

Reid has previously said that Montgomery “selected” Nicole Little, a 2013 Wake Forest University graduate who practices criminal-defense law and landlord-tenant matters, to fill the seat. Montgomery declined to confirm that he asked her to fill his seat on council. Little has also declined to comment.

Despite Montgomery’s concession, his modified proposal still sought to limit the role of the party in selecting the next council member from the East Ward.

“I would also ask that the recommendation that comes from the party come with the caveat that the person that is appointed may only serve until a special election is called and request that that person not run in a special election,” he said while making the motion.

Some members indicated they don’t believe the council can bind the Democratic Party or the eventual appointee to not run for election.

“I don’t know if we can legally put caveats that the person’s got to quit or resign or we’re gonna kick ’em off,” said Robert Clark, the sole Republican on the city council.

The process for filling the East Ward vacancy takes on additional weight because of the possibility of two additional vacancies if council members Dan Besse and DD Adams win their respective elections in November. The process for filling the East Ward seat is likely to set a precedent, and Mayor Joines indicated that if there were multiple vacancies council would likely seek enabling legislation to provide a single special election to fill all open seats at once. The two Democrats are both running in Republican-leaning districts. Besse’s bid for the state House in District 75 is considered somewhat more feasible than Adams’ run against Republican incumbent Virginia Foxx in the 5th Congressional District.

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