The seat for District 72 left vacant by Rep. Derwin Montgomery brings forth two Democratic primary candidates, both of whom have long-standing ties to Winston-Salem

Rep. Derwin Montgomery’s decision to run for Congress leaves the seat open for two Democratic contenders in District 72. LaShun Huntley and Amber Baker are both first-time political candidates and each have longstanding ties to Winston-Salem.

Rep. Derwin Montgomery has held the seat since 2018 and has filed to run for Congress this year.

According to the Forsyth County Board of Elections, the district has close to 54,000 registered voters, with about 58.4 percent registered as Democrats and only 15.5 percent as Republican. The district also has 51.2 percent black voters and 39 percent white.

Starting in the northern parts of downtown Winston-Salem just above Interstate 40, District 72 radiates out to the northwest to include Wake Forest University all the way towards Oak Hollow Road and Buffalo Creek. To the east, the district stretches towards Walkertown, west of Reidsville Road.

For the past decade, the seat has been held by a Democrat, and it is assumed that will remain the case come this November. Considering the district’s partisan lean, the winner of the Democratic primary will in all likelihood be the next representative, but they’ll face Republican Dan Lawlor in the November general election.

The 72nd district covers a portion of downtown Winston-Salem and then radiates outwards. (screenshot from Forsyth County Board of Elections)

On affordable housing and healthcare

Baker, who has been the principal of Kimberley Park Elementary for the past 12 years, told Triad City Beat that she was inspired to run for the district to build on her experience as an educator. In addition to her position at the elementary school, Baker was also elected as vice-chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party’s African-American Caucus four months ago.

“I’ve been involved in the community by extension through my job at Kimberley Park,” Baker said. “I’ve worked to help parents get affordable housing, I’ve advocated at City Hall, I’ve tried to help families obtain reasonable jobs.

“I wanted to move from the organizing side to the possibility of making policy,” she continued.

Both affordable housing and funding for public education are two challenges facing the district according to Baker.

“We have $49 million at the state level for over 100 counties to create additional low-income and affordable housing,” Baker said. “I would like to see that number doubled. That would make it a more viable dollar amount.”

When asked how she plans to increase funding for housing projects, Baker said that she would need to be elected first and see what other funding streams exist to help fund her goals.

And to do that, she said she would work with her fellow representatives, both across the aisle as well as within her own party.

“We are really steeped in partisanship,” she said. “We are a microcosm of what is happening in the nation at large. One of the things that I pride myself on is working to get to a yes, being able to work with people who might look at our issue from different perspectives and find some commonality in that perspective.”

Huntley, who decided to run after getting calls from community members to do so, said that he has a proven record of working with Republicans through his capacity as CEO of United Health Services, a network of health clinics in Winston-Salem.

He mentioned how US Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Virginia Foxx have visited his health clinics and how he visits Washington DC annually as the board chair of the NC Community Health Centers Association to talk to representatives about health care.

Now, he said he wants to grow his work of helping those in the community on a greater scale.

“I want to be able to represent people on the state level,” he said. “I want to think about, How can we impact everybody’s life?”

Through his work at United Health Services, Huntley said he sees a lot of issues with the healthcare system and would work to get Medicaid expanded if he were elected.

“There are a lot of people who are without healthcare, and they need it,” Huntley said. “I’ve seen it firsthand with United Health Services. The majority of people we serve are uninsured.”

On education

When it comes to education, Baker voiced her support for a mandatory African-American studies course, but said that individual school districts should be allowed to design the course curriculums for students to graduate.

“What is hindering this issue is that the state requires the history courses that must be taken,” she said. “That locks in the number of courses that students can take and, if you try to require yet another course for students to take, it makes it more difficult for students to meet the requirements to apply for college.”

Both Baker and Huntley also expressed the need to recruit and maintain high-quality teachers in the district. Baker noted an increase in base salaries for teachers as part of the state’s budget as well as more flexibility in who can be hired are steps that can be taken to improve education.

She also said she wants to see the quality of public education mirror that of the state’s universities and colleges.

“When we have top secondary institutions, I want our primary and our pre-K programs to mirror that,” she said.

Huntley, who worked as a biology and earth science teacher at Parkland High School in 1993 and 1994, echoed Baker’s calls for increased teacher pay.

“When I was a young teacher with a young family, you couldn’t live on a teacher’s salary,” Huntley said. “That pushed me out of teaching.”

He said that his experience of working with kids as a teacher, as well as having his own kids, fostered his passion for helping other people.

“I would love to hear what other people think the district would need,” Huntley said. “I want to hear what the constituents want to happen.”

Winston-Salem roots

Both Huntley and Baker have spent decades living and working in Winston-Salem.

Baker said she has called Winston-Salem home on and off since 1981. She graduated from North Forsyth High School before going to Howard University for her undergraduate degree and then to Ohio State University for a PhD.

In the years since she’s lived here, Baker said that Winston-Salem has grown, creating a new identity around arts and innovation, but that the growth hasn’t necessarily benefited everyone in the city.

“There’s limited access for people who have limited skills,” she said. “We see communities be reinvigorated and gentrified. We need our communities to be revitalized but not without a plan for reentry for those residents.”

Baker said she brings a broader perspective, compared to Huntley — who has always lived in the district — because she’s lived in other cities.

“I have a more global lens when looking at Winston-Salem,” she said.

Huntley on the other hand, pointed to his residency as a commitment to his community. He grew up in Winston-Salem, going to Carver High School, then Winston-Salem State University for undergrad before obtaining a master’s degree from Walden University, an online college.

“I’m from Winston-Salem,” Huntley said. “I grew up in the community. I have made so many relationships, and I have good relationships with all of the local officials in town. I’m dedicated. My mom says, ‘There’s always going to be challenges but there’s always going to be solutions,’ so I’m dedicated to finding those solutions.”