Wesley Bell’s victory in the Democratic primary for St. Louis County prosecutor demonstrated an ability to construct a broad coalition of support while also turning out voters in traditionally African-American areas of the region.
Bell, who beat seven-term incumbent Bob McCulloch by 17 percentage points Tuesday, will be the first African-American to hold the post.
St. Louis County is nearly 70 percent white, and while black candidates have won countywide before, they had the backing of traditional labor unions.
Conventional wisdom held Proposition A — the referendum on whether membership in a union can be required — would benefit McCulloch. He had picked up the endorsement of local labor groups and received donations from most of the unions like the pipefitters and ironworkers.
But Bell and his supporters turned that wisdom on its head by linking the idea of economic justice to racial and criminal-justice issues.
“What we know about unions is that they have played a really significant role in getting African-Americans into the workforce, having work protections in the workforce,” said Kayla Reed, who led Action St. Louis’ voter-outreach efforts for Bell. “I think that folks identified with the language of Prop A but were also looking to push us a little farther and wanted something different.”
The SEIU Missouri State Council, which represents employees in service industries like health care and hospitality, explicitly connected those issues when campaigning in north St. Louis County, said its secretary/treasurer Lenny Jones.
“We cannot achieve economic justice without racial justice,” he said. “We firmly see that every day — we believe it wholeheartedly — so combining those two campaigns together in St. Louis County was so important to our members. We had a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of members out on the doors, making phone calls, talking to their co-workers, to deliver this victory.”
Bell’s message of change resonated even in traditional union strongholds like Tesson Ferry Township, where Debbie Kitchen led a group of volunteers for Bell. The township, which covers parts of southeast St. Louis County, to the border with Jefferson County, has a higher percentage of white residents than the county as a whole, Kitchen said.
“It was really fun to find out that what we assumed was not true,” she said of her neighbors and friends. “They wanted change. They had enough of Bob McCulloch. When they found out these new ideas were out there, they listened.”
Kitchen said Bell also more closely tied himself to the "No on Prop A" campaign than McCulloch, featuring it prominently on his mailings.
“It was another reason, in addition to getting rid of Bob McCulloch, that people felt ready and excited to go to the polls,” Reed added of the campaign against so-called "right to work."
The measure failed in St. Louis County by a nearly 3-1 margin.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann