WSSU names panel to investigate city council candidate campaigning in class

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Chancellor Donald Reaves of Winston-Salem State University announced Wednesday the appointment of a committee to investigate an incident in which a candidate campaigned for a seat on the Winston-Salem City Council during a political science class.

Derwin Montgomery, a Democrat seeking a second term on the city council representing the East Ward, made a campaign talk to students in an American government class last week at WSSU, and then arranged transportation to the elections office in downtown Winston-Salem for the students in the class who wanted to vote. Those students left class early.

Montgomery and Larry Little, the professor teaching the class, acknowledge that the incident took place. Little said he invited Montgomery to speak at the candidate’s request, but denied breaking university system rules that limit political activity on campuses of the University of North Carolina system, of which WSSU is a part.

Reaves said that the new committee is expected to report back quickly to his office.

“The university as an institution and I as chancellor take these allegations seriously,” Reaves said in a statement released shortly after noon on Wednesday. “There are guidelines, policies and protocols in place that dictate how, when and where political activities are allowed on all UNC campuses. If there have been violations, I certainly want to be able to document them and take the appropriate action.”

Named to the committee by Reaves were Lettia Cornish, assistant provost of planning; RaVonda Dalton-Rann, executive assistant to the chancellor and university secretary; and Nancy Young, director of public relations.

Reaves said he wants students to be active politically, but that it must happen “within prescribed procedures that are neutral in their application.”

Montgomery is one of three Democrats running for East Ward. The other two candidates, Joycelyn Johnson and Phil Carter, said Tuesday that if Montgomery spoke to the political science class it gave him an unfair advantage.

Little has said that he often invites people to speak to his class and that he doesn’t necessarily agree with the viewpoints of the people who speak. On Tuesday, after he learned of the complaints about Montgomery’s appearance, Little said that he would like all three East Ward candidates to have a debate during his class.

Montgomery was a senior political science student at WSSU in 2009 when he first ran for the city council. He noticed that primary turnout was low and figured he had a shot if he could mobilize students to go to the polls and vote for him.

Little was one of Montgomery’s professors and became an adviser to his campaign. Montgomery’s plan worked. Riding a wave of student votes, he beat Johnson, a longtime incumbent, by around 300 votes among almost 750 votes cast.

Then, as now, Johnson complained that Montgomery had access to students that she did not have. Johnson questioned in 2009 whether all the students who voted were really residents, and asked the county elections board to look into allegations that students were given class credit for voting.

Little said that from 2009 and to now he has not given any class credit for voting. Little does encourage students to become politically involved, and said he has given credit to students who decide to work for a campaign — any campaign, he stresses. This time around, Little said, he has no role in Montgomery’s campaign, although he said Montgomery is his friend.

Meanwhile, local Republicans have long complained about what they see as political favoritism to Democrats on the black-majority campus. An incident in which a WSSU staff member sent out an email on the university system in 2010 calling for recipients to work for the election of Democrats only added fuel to the fire, although university officials called the email a mistake.