After months of racially charged unrest over the police killing of a black teenager, activists are making a final push to attract a new generation of voters to the polls Tuesday in the hopes of changing the face of the predominantly white political leadership in this mostly black city.
The effort has transformed the normally sleepy races for City Council in Ferguson, a community of 21,000 people just outside St. Louis.
“It’s special to me because if this goes, if everybody plans on making the election and doing what we (are) supposed to do, this can be the start of a new tomorrow,” said Latrez Davis, 24, a black man who moved to Ferguson about a month ago and said he planned to vote.
Much is at stake. The Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, unleashed sometimes-violent demonstrations that left parts of Ferguson tattered and charred. Beyond revitalizing these areas, the next council must select key officials — a city manager, a police chief and a municipal judge — who will be directly responsible for ushering in a new era of law enforcement.
Although Wilson was cleared of legal wrongdoing in the shooting of Brown, fierce criticism has lingered over the city, including from the Justice Department. Last month, the department released a harsh report accusing Ferguson of running an unjust law enforcement system that disproportionately targeted blacks and routinely violated people’s constitutional rights.
Currently, in a city that is 67 percent black, only one of the seven council members is African-American. That number is poised to double: In the races for three open seats, four of the eight candidates are black, including both candidates in Ward 3.
“This is how every municipal election should be,” said Councilman Dwayne T. James of Ward 2, the sole African-American on the council and only the second in the city’s 120-year history. “I’m excited about people being engaged in their community.”
The council races have attracted outside interests. The national Working Families Party, with support from Democracy for America and MoveOn.org, formed a coalition of local progressive groups to support candidates. Volunteers from the groups — the Service Employees International Union’s state council, the Organization for Black Struggle, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment — said they expected to have knocked on about 5,000 doors and distributed 8,000 pieces of literature by Tuesday. Their effort could cost as much as $7,000.
“These are not national elections in terms of federal office, but this is very much an election that’s part of a national discussion and statement about what kind of society we’re going to have here,” said Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party.
The battle lines are as much about race as they are about the new guard versus the old guard.
In Ward 2, the coalition is supporting Bob Hudgins, a political activist, over former Mayor Brian Fletcher. Both are white.
Last week, two volunteers with the coalition, Ray and Melissa Seymore, husband and wife, set off to urge Ward 3 voters to elect Lee Smith over Wesley Bell. (Both candidates are black.) The Seymores, who are black, have lived in Ferguson for about two years and have worked as canvassers for Democratic candidates for more than a decade. This race is personal, however.
“I want my kids to have something to where they are proud of being from,” said Melissa Seymore, 34.
“We just need somebody out here that’s looking out for our protection,” added Ray Seymore, 37.
Talking with residents, the Seymores praised Smith as a longtime community member who would work to fix what they said was a biased law enforcement system.
Bell, a criminal justice professor at a community college, said his professional background as a defense lawyer, prosecutor and judge put him in an ideal position to push for change. Even before Brown’s killing, he said, he worked to help poor defendants by, for example, making sure they had payment plans for tickets and dropping charges that he deemed excessive.
“I’ve seen the problems in the municipal courts,” Bell said. “We’ve been aware of these problems and pushing for these reforms for years.”
Ella M. Jones, a candidate in Ward 1 who is black, said she had distributed 8,000 pieces of literature and raised just over $13,000, more than 11/2 times the amount raised by her three competitors combined. She has run ads in the local newspaper and on the radio.
“Even though people thought, ‘This is going to be a small-town campaign,’ I thought of it much, much bigger,” said Jones, who is president of the Ferguson Township Open Democratic Club. “Ferguson is going to be a model city for people, and all eyes are on Ferguson. I wanted to give my best.”
Jones is running against Adrienne Hawkins, Mike McGrath and Doyle McClellan. Either Jones or Hawkins, if elected, would be the first black woman on the Council.
James, the lone black member now, said it would be historic to have two or three blacks on the council.
“How that actually works out in the future, we’re still waiting to see,” he said. “Just because there’s two or three African-Americans doesn’t mean that all the issues will be addressed and everything is basically going to be perfect. Now, we still have a lot of work to do, no matter who’s on the council, and we still need people engaged after the election.”