FERGUSON, Mo. — Darren Seals experienced waves of disbelief and anger after Michael Brown’s death, but two months later, he has found a way to channel his emotions: Focus on changing an elected leadership that seems deaf to the concerns of African American residents like him.
So on Nov. 4, the 27-year-old assembly-line worker and hip-hop musician from a deeply Democratic community plans to take bold action. He says he will vote for a white Republican.
“Just because they’ve got the D next to their name, that don’t mean nothing,” said Seals, who lives a few blocks from where a police officer shot Brown. “The world is watching us right now. It’s time to send a message of our power.”
Many African Americans in Ferguson and across St. Louis County, angered over their leaders’ response to the fatal shooting, say they will be taking their outrage to the ballot box and voting against a Democratic Party that has long been their automatic choice.
They are focusing on the St. Louis county executive’s race, which typically centers on matters such as the budget and sanitation but this year has become caught up in the unrest.
Earlier this month, a coalition of some 20 African American Democratic leaders called a news conference to endorse the GOP candidate, state Rep. Rick Stream. Armed with voter registration forms, activists like Seals have been roaming black neighborhoods urging people to vote for anyone but the Democrat.
The plan is not only to beat back a local candidate they view as particularly unfriendly to black residents, but also to present a show of force to Democratic leaders all the way up to Sen. Claire McCaskill and Gov. Jay Nixon. By switching their allegiance in this election, these African Americans hope to demonstrate that their votes should not be taken for granted.
Ted Hoskins, the mayor of nearby Berkeley who has endorsed Stream, rattled off a series of slights and sins. They range from the governor’s decision to back the controversial prosecutor in the Brown case to the Democratic Party’s anemic support for the incumbent county executive, a black Democrat who was ousted by a white challenger during the August primary.
“This is about the total disrespect white Democrats have demonstrated against the black community,” he said. “This time, we are going to show them.”
It could be a difficult feat. A Republican has not held the St. Louis county executive’s position in 25 years. Black residents make up about a quarter of the county’s population. But they typically account for only 10 to 15 percent of the vote, according to Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Anger is running high among some African Americans toward the Democratic candidate for county executive, County Councilman Steve Stenger, who is white. Stenger mounted an aggressive primary challenge in defeating Charlie Dooley, one of the state’s top-ranking black politicians and the first African American to become St. Louis county executive.
Even worse in the eyes of some African Americans are Stenger’s political ties to Robert P. McCulloch, the Democratic county prosecutor handling the Michael Brown case. McCulloch, whose father was a police officer killed in the line of duty by a black man, earned the ire of local black residents over his handling of a previous police shooting and a perception that he is particularly hard on black suspects.
They have asked for McCulloch to be removed from the Brown case, but he has declined to recuse himself. McCaskill and Nixon, among other officials, have backed McCulloch’s decision to stay on the case.
McCulloch did not respond to requests for comment. In a previous interview with The Washington Post, McCulloch contested the notion that he cannot be fair in the Brown case.
“This argument is silly. They keep bringing up my father who was killed in the line of duty,” he said. “If anything, it made me a strong advocate for the victims of violence.”
In the primary, McCulloch took the unusual step of endorsing Stenger, filming an ad in which he accused the incumbent’s administration of corruption. At a recent County Council meeting, speaker after speaker asked Stenger to denounce McCulloch, but Stenger has remained supportive of McCulloch’s role in the Brown investigation.
Stenger’s name and his support for McCulloch have become well known among protesters who have demonstrated nightly across the street from the Ferguson Police Department. “You know, I usually vote Democrat, but I might have to have a change of heart come Election Day and vote for the Republican,” Marvin Skull, 55, a machinist from nearby Hazelwood, said with a grin.
Stenger also declined to comment. He has tried to paint his Republican opponent as an extreme conservative in the legislature, highlighting his support for gun rights and his anti-abortion views. He has some high-profile African American support, including the Rev. Sammie E. Jones, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in St. Louis, a congregation of 900.
Jones said it would be a mistake for blacks to vote for a Republican, because the GOP does not have the community’s interests at heart. “We support the Democratic Party because they are of the people,” he said of the area’s African Americans, predicting that “there are very few of us who are willing to cut off our nose to spite our face.”
The race has spawned a few other campaigns, including a nascent write-in effort for a local black activist and another one urging people to vote simply for Michael Brown.
But those backing Stream are hoping that their vote will be something more than a protest vote.
On a recent evening at the New Northside Baptist Church conference center in Jennings, a predominantly black suburb near Ferguson, black Democratic elected officials in St. Louis County applauded boisterously when Stream stood in front of them to make his case.
Stream, whose daughter died at age 18 after suffering from an eating disorder, said he could understand Brown’s parents’ pain. He pledged to adjust policies to prevent people with outstanding traffic tickets from going to jail, a longtime concern of local African Americans, and to lobby for more school funding. He made the case that the true ideological divide in Missouri is between urban and rural, not Republican and Democrat, and acknowledged that he had a lot to learn about the African American community.
“I can guarantee you, a lot of what you’re thinking up here is not what we’re thinking in Kirkwood,” he told the roughly 25 people present. “I have to come up here and hear about what you all care about.”
Terry Wilson, chairman of the Jennings School Board, urged the group to strongly consider Stream, and to bring their friends with them to the polls. “The other candidate, he’s really dismissing this community,” he said. “We’re so baptized into voting for Democrats. . . . Look at all the Democrats that have done wrong to you.”
A few miles away in East St. Louis, Ill., Seals, the factory worker and hip-hop musician, wandered the crowd at Peace Fest, an outdoor concert, handing out voter registration forms. His frustration with the Democratic Party rises as high as the White House, where he said President Obama has done little for black Americans.
“To this day, in seven or eight years, we haven’t seen any significant difference in the black community,” he said. “In fact, it feels like it’s getting worse.”
Seals, who voted for Obama but has never cast a ballot in a local election, acknowledges that his vote for a Republican may be “a one-time thing.” But it depends on whether Stream ushers in the change he has promised, explaining, “We aren’t asking you to perform miracles. We just want you to do the job you are supposed to do.”