Two black candidates are among three people elected to the Ferguson City Council, substantially increasing African American representation in the St. Louis suburb at the center of a national debate about how police interact with minority residents.
Unofficial results on Tuesday showed that Wesley Bell, a black man, won in the 3rd Ward and Ella Jones, a black woman, won in the 1st Ward. Brian Fletcher, a former mayor who is white, won a 2nd Ward race against another white candidate.
Until Tuesday, the mayor and five of six City Council members were white. Mayor James Knowles III and three council members, including Dwayne James, who is black, were not up for election this year.
Though it is a majority-black city, the St. Louis suburb had just one black member on its six-person city council.
A coalition of local activist groups was working with the national Working Families Party to get out the vote, knocking on thousands of doors in support of a slate of progressive candidates who promise to restructure city government.
“It has been a lot of education. A lot of people aren’t aware of the candidates or why they should vote,” said June Roach, 52, a lifelong St. Louis resident who was phone-banking this week. Roach says she wants to bring change to Ferguson in part because her 20-year-old nephew, a black man, lives in the Canfield Green apartments, which were also home to Michael Brown, the black teenager who was fatally shot in August by Officer Darren Wilson.
“If we don’t want to continue with the same type of racist practices and discriminatory things we’ve been seeing, then we have to get out and vote,” Roach said. “I think we can see the light, that there is a possibility that things can change.”
At the time of Brown’s death, Ferguson’s mayor, police chief, city manager and municipal judge were all white. Before this year, just two black candidates had ever sought office in the city.
Brown’s death, along with an avalanche of national scrutiny, changed all that. The police chief, city manager and municipal judge all resigned after a Justice Department report last month found evidence of rampant racial discrimination in official Ferguson. Meanwhile, three of the white city council members opted against seeking reelection, and a diverse slate of candidates stepped forward to run.
In Ward 3, which includes Canfield, two black candidates were facing off, guaranteeing that the number of black members on the city council would at least double after this year’s election. Bell, an area municipal judge and prosecutor, was facing Lee Smith, a longtime Ferguson resident who has gained the support of many regulars in the local police protest community.
In Ward 1, there was a four-way race featuring two white men and two black women, in a contest to represent one of the most racially diverse sections of the city.
Symbolically, however, the battle between Ferguson’s past and what some insist should be its future was encapsulated in Ward 2 — the sole race without a black candidate.
In that race, Fletcher — who started the “I Love Ferguson” campaign to support local businesses after several nights of riots and looting, and who has at times defended the city’s government and police department — won against Bob Hudgins, an independent journalist who has been a mainstay among the Ferguson protesters.
The council faces a daunting year ahead, including negotiations with the Justice Department over revisions to the police department and local courts.
“People don’t trust the system because it’s proven for quite some time that it has failed us, it has totally failed us as a people,” Reggie Rounds, 57, a Ferguson resident and member of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, said as he took a break from a long day of canvassing the Canfield neighborhood Monday.
“I realize the distrust and the state of being. But when I talk to people, I try to spread positivity of what can be and what will be if we unite as a collective in this community, if we get out and vote.”