By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Leslie Winner, a former state senator and civil-rights lawyer who is vice president and general counsel for the University of North Carolina System, has been named executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Winner, who starts her new job in January, says she will work with the board to continue the foundation’s efforts to bridge widening gaps in resources in the state as it grows and undergoes demographic and economic shifts.
“North Carolina is at a crossroads,” she says. “And we simply must address issues of building community across ethnic and economic lines, giving people economic opportunity while sustaining our environment and bridging these economic gaps, and giving everybody access to an education that prepares them to be in the 21st century.”
Winner was selected from four finalists picked from among more than 300 candidates for the job, considered one of the most powerful and influential positions in North Carolina philanthropy.
She will succeed Tom Ross, a former superior court judge and director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts who resigned after six-and-a-half years to become president of Davidson College.
Joe Crocker, the foundation’s director of operations, has been serving as interim executive director.
Tom Lambeth, who served as the foundation’s executive director for 22 years, preceding Ross, says Winner is an “ideal choice” for the job.
“She has a lifetime of demonstrating her commitment to empowering people and to the kind of public policy that helps North Carolina be the good and great state it ought to be,” he says.
The biggest challenge the foundation faces is “staying relevant,” he says.
“One of her strengths is that she is sensitive to that and has the capacity to listen to other people’s ideas and to other institutions in the state that will help keep it relevant and stay ahead of the curve.”
Winner says she initially will “take some time to listen.”
That will include listening to the foundation’s board, staff and grantees, and talking to leaders of other foundations to learn about their goals and the possibilities for working together.
Winner will be the first woman to serve as executive director of the $470 million-asset foundation, which she says “has been the most consistent catalyst for positive, progressive change in the state of any institution. It motivates and facilitates and enables people all over the state to put their energy to solving these problems.”
An Asheville native who received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in Providence, R.I., and a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, Winner served as a law clerk for Judge James B. McMillan of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.
She then worked for the Legal Aid Society of Mecklenburg County, later renamed Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, focusing on safe and affordable housing.
She later was a partner in the Charlotte law firm Ferguson, Stein, Watt, Wallas, Adkins and Gresham, focusing on matters involving voting-rights, schools, housing desegregation and First Amendment issues ranging from gender discrimination to employment.
Elected to the state Senate in 1992, she served six years representing part of Mecklenburg County.
Before joining UNC General Administration seven years ago, she was general counsel for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education