With Increased Turnout, Ferguson Voters Elect 3 Black Councilmembers
By Stephen Deere
For the first time in Ferguson's 120-year history, the City Council will have three black members, but even so, Tuesday's election was less than a clear victory for the throngs of volunteers who poured into the city in a last-minute push to sway voters.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the results for Ferguson City Council was that 30 percent of the city's 12,738 registered voters cast ballots _ more than double the typical turnout.
The high turnout did not favor two candidates supported by protesters: Bob Hudgins and Lee Smith.
Hudgins, a self-identified protester and independent journalist, who ran in the 2nd Ward, lost to former Mayor Brian Fletcher, founder of the "I love Ferguson" campaign.
"I was being portrayed by the media as an establishment candidate and the old guard," Fletcher said. "I guess the signal was sent tonight that this old dog has a few tricks ... Experience isn't a bad thing. It can be a good thing."
Smith, a retiree, ran against Wesley Bell in the 3rd Ward. Bell is a municipal court judge in Velda City.
In the days leading up to the election, dozens of volunteers canvassed neighborhoods for Bell and Smith. The two were supported by a coalition of groups, including Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, the Organization for Black Struggle, the Working Families Party and the Service Employees International Union.
Patricia Bynes, the outspoken Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township, managed the campaigns of both the men.
Ferguson's population is 67 percent black, but as of Tuesday, just one of six council seats was held by a black: Dwayne James in the 2nd Ward.
In the 1st Ward, Ella Jones, the other soon-to-be black council member, garnered nearly 50 percent of the vote in a four-way race. Jones raised more money than all of her opponents combined, thanks in part to a $7,000 donation from the Communication Workers of America.
Jones, chair of the city's Human Rights commission, started sending out letters to raise support for her campaign long before Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson. She said she ran partly because of the way she witnessed young black men being treated by police.
In any other year, it is not uncommon for candidates in Ferguson to run uncontested, and turnout typically hovers around a paltry 12 percent.
But in the aftermath of the Brown shooting, numerous protests, riots and federal investigations, the election featured eight candidates vying for three council seats, and it attracted the attention of media outlets from California to New York.
On Tuesday, just as the first wave of voters headed toward the polls, a thunderstorm rolled across the region.
The early hours of the election gave little indication voter turnout would be higher than normal. At Koch Elementary School, only about 10 people had voted by 9 a.m., said those outside the polling location. The polling site is less than a half-mile from the Canfield Green apartment complex where Brown was killed.
"I'm worried that this is going to look bad for Ferguson because I know the world is watching, and the world is anticipating a large turnout," said LaRhonda Wilson.
The stormy weather didn't deter Sharon Bell-Price of Ferguson, who said she never misses a chance to vote. "As for this election, it's extremely important with all the turmoil and tension we've had this year in Ferguson," she said.
Brown's shooting, questionable practices in municipal courts and racial profiling were weighing on her voting decisions, she said. "I knew something was going on, but I second-guessed myself," Bell-Price said. "But now that it's all come to light this year, I'm hopeful we'll get the change we're looking for."
If the rain benefited anyone, it seemed to be the so-called establishment candidates, not the upstarts looking to shake things up. St. Louis County's municipal courts, which some described as modern-day debtors prisons, have been cited as major contributor to the protests.
But Bell's status as a municipal court judge didn't seem to hurt him.
Dan Peterson, Bell's campaign manager, said the key to victory was voter outreach.
"It was knocking on doors talking to people in person," Peterson said. "We talked about why Wesley was the best candidate."
Mayor James Knowles arrived at Bell's victory party at J&C BBQ and Blues restaurant about 10:30 p.m. He declined to comment on the results, telling a reporter he was just there to have a drink. Knowles, who ran uncontested last year, may soon be forced to mount another campaign. A group of residents recently announced they would work to recall him from office.
The next council will be seated in the middle of significant upheaval. Both City Manager John Shaw and Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned after a Department of Justice investigation accused the city's police department of routinely violating residents' civil rights and acting as a collection agency for Ferguson's municipal courts.
A half-hour before the polls closed at 7 p.m., Bell and Smith were at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, trying to sway last-minute voters.
A weary Bell stopped to shake one woman's hand and then noticed that his flier given to her moments earlier by a volunteer was buried beneath a stack of other election materials. He gently plucked it from the pile and then repositioned it in her hand.
"You want to put that one on top," he said.
Bell, an advocate for community policing, said that whomever interviews for the police chief's job "better be doing his homework."
Nancy Cambria and Nicholas J.C. Pistor of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
(c)2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch