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Ferguson Election Offers Chance for Change

This week, Crystal Stovall will choose between two black candidates running to represent her City Council ward in Ferguson, Mo. The election is the first chance at citizen-led change in the St. Louis suburb nationally notorious for racial turmoil.

By Elizabeth Campbell

This week, Crystal Stovall will choose between two black candidates running to represent her City Council ward in Ferguson, Mo. The election is the first chance at citizen-led change in the St. Louis suburb nationally notorious for racial turmoil.

Voters from Chicago to Anchorage, Alaska, will head to the polls Tuesday. The closest-watched contest may be in Ferguson, where the first election since riots rocked the city of 21,000 will test whether angry calls for justice translate into voter turnout.

Stovall, 33, twice marched to protest the Aug. 9 killing of a black teenager by a white police officer outside her apartment complex. But she didn't join demonstrators who gathered nightly to chant at riot-gear-clad officers. Instead, she registered to vote.

"Protesting is fine and all that and dandy, but without any political change, nothing is going to happen," Stovall, who is black, said on a sunny Monday morning as she pushed a stroller near where Michael Brown was shot. "You can protest till your lungs turn blue, but if the laws don't change, it doesn't matter."

Civic groups have run registration and voter education drives in recent months. The number of registered active voters in Ferguson rose 5 percent since Aug. 1, St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners data show. That compares with 2.6 percent countywide.

About 80 percent of voting-age residents in Ferguson are registered, based on census and county data. Still, past participation isn't encouraging. The highest turnout in the previous three municipal elections was 12 percent in 2014.

"If people don't vote in this election, we've got a problem," said John Gaskin, a member of the NAACP's national board who grew up in Ferguson. "If you want quality jobs, equal-paying jobs, if you want quality schools, if you want quality, non-biased policing, better municipal courts, so much of that starts at the voting booth."

The council is charged with hiring people to run Ferguson's operations and enforce its laws. City Manager John Shaw and Police Chief Thomas Jackson both resigned last month after the Justice Department concluded that Ferguson's police and courts fostered racism. The council will also have to work with the department to implement changes.

Ferguson's city council comprises six members and the mayor. Two members are elected from each of three wards for three-year terms. All three seats up for election Tuesday have incumbents who decided not to run, said Mark Byrne, a councilman who isn't up for re-election this year.

"Sometimes, the right thing to do is to let somebody else come in and have a little different vision or a different perspective," said Byrne, who said he probably would have made the same decision. "That's just part of the healing process."

At the very least, this election is guaranteed to diversify the leadership in Ferguson, where almost 70 percent of residents are black. The council currently has one black member. Four of the eight candidates seeking the three seats are black, making the contest the most diverse in Ferguson's 120-year history, said Brian Fletcher, a white candidate who served two terms as mayor.

Last week, yard signs in green, navy and red peppered lawns. Candidate Wesley Bell, a professor, lawyer and municipal judge for a nearby town, tapped on doors in his ward Monday. He pitched his plans, including more community policing. Virginia Crawford, a white 51-year-old nurses aide, lamented Ferguson's damaged reputation.

"We live here, just a small town, and now the world, you know, knows us," Bell, who is black, told her. "We can turn this image around."

Two hours later, Bell joined the other seven candidates on the purple-carpeted altar of Greater Grace Church for a forum. The four white men, two black men and two black women answered questions on policing, repairing Ferguson's image and bolstering the economy.

Two candidates, Bob Hudgins, who is white, and Lee Smith, who is black, are endorsed by groups including the Working Families Party, which supported the run of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the Missouri and Kansas branch of the Service Employees International Union.

Hudgins is running against Fletcher, who previously served two terms as mayor. During that time, Fletcher, who is white, hired Shaw, the ex-city manager. Fletcher said his experience is what Ferguson needs right now.

Progress has been made since the unrest. The city has lowered some court fees that the Justice Department said police were under pressure to maximize. New businesses including a cigar lounge, barbecue restaurant and yoga studio have opened. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis is planning to build a job training center on the site of a burned-out gas station.

One week before the election, at least six buildings remained boarded up along the street where police and protesters clashed in August.

Stovall, who has a 17-year-old son and four daughters, says she may vote for Smith, a retired factory worker, who has lived in Ferguson for 27 years.

"We are still suffering from a lot of unrest," Smith, 76, said while sitting next to his opponent, Bell, during Monday's forum. "What has happened in Ferguson has not only just affected the people of Ferguson. It is an effect that has impacted the entire world. So the whole world is watching us."

(c)2015 Bloomberg News

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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