In the wake of a scathing report by the Justice Department on Ferguson’s police department and a shooting this week that left two officers seriously wounded, it’s easy to forget that Ferguson is holding municipal elections in just a few weeks.
Three incumbents will be vacating their seats on the six-member, nonpartisan city council—including the Ferguson’s lone black councilman. Eight candidates are running to replace them: four are black and four are white. That’s a higher total than in previous years, when some candidates ran unopposed or won write-in campaigns.
Most of the citizens in attendance at candidate forums have been white, but that shouldn't come as a surprise, said Jason Johnson, a professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio: Some African-Americans in this community may not see such spaces as welcoming or effective.
“You have a lot of black people who think this is a lot of nonsense,” he said. “And they have gotten more done through protesting than through more traditional means."
Plus, the mayor and council serve part-time and for little pay. Ferguson’s city manager runs its day-to-day operations, including supervision of the police department and court system.
But with the resignation this week of eight-year city manager John Shaw in the wake of the DOJ report, the next council will be responsible for choosing his powerful successor, which could give the panel renewed clout.
In this photo take in September, Marurice Brown raises his arms during a public comments portion of a meeting of the Ferguson City Council. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Doyle McClellan, one of the two white candidates for the Ward 1 seat, has been critical of the DOJ report. On his campaign website, McClellan acknowledged the corruption outlined in the report and said the suggested reforms should be implemented, but said it “has problems,” adding: “The statistics are flawed, and many of the stories are unverified.”
“The document is a plaintiff’s view of Ferguson, and it ignores favorable data to make its case,” McClellan wrote.
Two other candidates for the Ward 1 seat, Ella Jones and Adrienne Hawkins, have said they were inspired to run by the Brown shooting and the issues it exposed in the city.
In Ward 2—which includes the Ferguson Police Department—former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher is running against Robert Hudgins, who has said he wants to “face race relations head on” and has wondered out loud why the events of the past several months didn’t occur sooner given the city’s racial climate. In the early months of unrest after the Brown shooting, Fletcher started the Friends of the City of Ferguson group to counter images of violent clashes between protesters and police on city streets.
The two-way race for Ward 3 guarantees that at least one African American will sit on the council. The district is home to the majority of the city’s black population and the Canfield Green apartment complex where Brown was killed. Wesley Bell is a municipal court judge and law professor whose platform includes community policing, civic engagement, and neighborhood revitalization. He faces Lee Smith, who is retired.
Though the city is nearly 70 percent black, Ferguson has never had a black mayor, and has only had two black councilmen, both of whom were initially appointed.
Historically, interest in Ferguson’s local elections has been low. Turnout has averaged about 15 percent for city elections, compared to around 75 percent of voters in presidential election years.
It is unclear how or if the city leadership’s roles may change as a result of the DOJ report. But whomever wins will join a council that will draw attention and scrutiny — making the idea to step up to run more than a notion.
"This is a really hard time," Johnson said. "Almost anybody running now is someone who is consciously accepting the fact that the city is going to have to change — whether they like it or not."