FERGUSON, Mo. — Ferguson’s first municipal election since a fatal police shooting sparked months of protests and exposed the city’s deep racial divide drew relatively little interest from prospective candidates as Tuesday’s filing deadline passed.
Three of the St. Louis suburb’s six City Council seats are up for election on April 7 and none of the three incumbents decided to seek re-election. Three of the eight residents who did declare as candidates waited until hours before Tuesday’s late afternoon filing deadline.
Ferguson was roiled by sometimes violent protests after 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was Black and unarmed, was shot to death by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in August. A St. Louis County grand jury declined in November to indict Wilson, who left the force days later.
At the time of the shooting, just three of 53 police officers were Black in a city with an African-American population of nearly 70 percent. All but one of the six council members are white, as is Mayor James Knowles, who resisted calls for his own resignation and said he plans to seek a third term as mayor in 2017.
“The council can still be responsive to the city without the customary ‘heads have to roll’ response,” Knowles said. “If that’s what the citizens of Ferguson demanded, there would be at least one person running under the banner of, ‘They all have to go.’ And that’s just not happened.”
Knowles said that two of three incumbents who are stepping down decided long before Brown’s death not to seek three more years in office, primarily due to work obligations.
Activists who initially sought to oust Ferguson elected leaders and Police Chief Tom Jackson, who also remains on the job, said many residents remain disillusioned with local politics. Others believe the most effective way to push for new laws and policy changes on issues such as police conduct and voting district boundaries is to agitate from outside rather than to negotiate from within, said protest leader Ashley Yates, co-founder of Millennial Activists United.
“It’s more about building power within our own community,” she said. “Ferguson really gave us an idea of what the City Council’s powers are — it’s not much. And there’s a realization that the system has failed Black America at large. So why operate in a system that does not work?”
Like many small cities, Ferguson relies on a professional administrator, its city manager, for most day-to-day governing decisions. Elected officials typically focus on items such as spending priorities and budget approvals.
The new candidates include Wesley Bell, 40, a criminal justice instructor who previously lost a Democratic primary for St. Louis County Council.
Bell is the son of a police officer and serves as a municipal court judge in Velda City, part of a cluster of inner-ring communities in north St. Louis County that has faced criticism for heavily relying on revenue from municipal traffic courts to fund city government. His ward includes the Canfield Green apartment complex outside of which Brown was killed.
The candidates also include a familiar face: former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher, who helped launch an “I Love Ferguson” campaign to bolster the city’s image.
The only seat to attract more than two candidates was in Ward 1, where Doyle McClellan, a network security administrator at an Illinois community college and two-year Ferguson resident, said he showed up at City Hall as soon as candidacy petitions could be filed in mid-December. He is one of four candidates in the ward.
McClellan, 46, said he was joined at the time by two other prospective candidates but had expected a bigger crowd, especially because would-be office seekers only need to collect signatures from 50 registered voters and pay a $10 filing fee, which is refunded to candidates who earn at least 5 percent of votes cast.
“I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a line of people,” said McClellan, who said he hopes to appeal to centrist voters turned off both by protesters looking to “retaliate” against the city and the “hard line, old-guard types who don’t take the protesters seriously at all.” — (AP)