Ferguson residents voted to add two African Americans to the city council, a move that diversifies an elected body that was overwhelmingly white in a city with a majority black population.
Ella Jones, Brian Fletcher and Wesley Bell captured three seats on the Ferguson City Council. Jones and Bell are African American; Fletcher is white. The six-member council will now have three black members, including Dwayne James, for the first time in its history.
Jones won nearly 50 percent of the vote in a four-way race that also featured Adrianne Hawkins, Mike McGrath and Doyle McClellan. Fletcher captured about 57 percent of the vote against Bob Hudgins. And Bell took in nearly 67 percent against Lee Smith.
Eric Fey, the Democratic director for the St. Louis County Board of Elections, told St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jo Mannies that the turnout on Tuesday was around 30 percent. That surpassed recent municipal elections in Ferguson — and nearly doubled the roughly 16 percent turnout in the rest of St. Louis County.
Bell said he was heartened by the sturdy turnout — especially because previous elections had received dismal voter participation.
"We knocked on doors. We were all about community outreach and staying positive. And it brought out the highest turnout in the history of Ward 3," Bell said. "That’s what I’m most proud about — that we reached out to citizens — residents who have not felt a part of the process. And they came out. And they came out and they spoke loudly."
Many were critical of the fact that the majority black suburb had only one African-American member on the six-person council. (The city's mayor also votes on proposed ordinances.) And many of the city’s key staffers who resigned recently — including the police chief, city manager and municipal court judge – were white.
Jones, who quit her job with Mary Kay to run for the council, said the results represent a big turning point for a city rocked by months of racial discord.
"For some people, it means hope," said Jones, answering a question about what it will mean for the council to have three black members. "For some people, it means a new face for Ferguson. And for some people, it means that it’s time for us to get together and do the work we need to do to build our city."
Fletcher, a former mayor of Ferguson, agreed with Jones about the significance of Tuesday's results.
"I think we made tremendous progress tonight," Fletcher said. "I mean, we’ve moved like a century’s worth of past history in one night."
Under normal circumstances, Ferguson’s city council elections wouldn’t have received much publicity. But the candidates received unprecedented coverage from local, national and international media outlets because of the attention that the city received after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer in August.
"Every move we made as far as the campaign — knocking on a door or putting up a yard sign — was covered. It was unique," Fletcher said. "And I think you certainly can say our election was transparent. The microscope of the world was set upon Ferguson."
Disappointment for protesters?
Still, the results may not be that pleasing to the protest groups that emerged after Brown's death.
While some activist groups and protest leaders backed Jones, they were not supportive of Bell or Fletcher. Groups such as Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, and the SEIU Missouri State Council campaigned for Hudgins and Smith.
Some distrusted Bell's role as a city prosecutor and municipal judge in other north St. Louis County cities, while Fletcher was at times openly critical about the protest movement.
In fact, Fletcher said Tuesday's results were a significant rebuke to protesters.
"We’ve had a lot of things canceled or postponed over these last several months because of the unrest," Fletcher said. "And I think it’s a signal to the protesters that they want their city back. The citizens do. I think this was a message."
Bell said "all kind of daggers (were) being thrown at us" during the campaign. But he added, "We made a point that we’re going to stay on our message."
"Because if you’re going to rebuild this community — or any community — you’ve got to bring people together," Bell said. "What does it serve you if you make one friend just to make one enemy? So, we were focused on bringing people together. And for everyone that had misgivings about me, that did not support me, I want to earn that support."
Selecting a new city manager will be high on the agenda for the new council. The new members will also have to decide how to proceed in the wake of a Justice Department report harshly critical of the city’s police department.
While many national figures have suggested that Ferguson should dissolve its police department and contract with St. Louis County, none of the eight candidates for the city council supports that idea. Fletcher emphasized in an interview that he would actively fight against such a proposal.
Jones also emphasized that she wanted the city's police department to be internally changed.
"I want to keep our police force," Jones said. "We have our own library. We have our own fire department. In order for Ferguson to hold its own identity, we need to keep our own police department."
At least one longtime observer questioned whether Tuesday’s elections in Ferguson warranted widespread national attention.
Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that because of the way Ferguson is structured, the winners of Tuesday’s elections will have limited power to make change.
“This is a council-manager form of government. The council’s biggest decision, not its only decision, is hiring a city manager,” Jones said. “This new council will do that because there’s an interim city manager as we’re all aware at the moment. But in terms of the day-to-day execution of policy, the analogy between a city council and a state legislature or the U.S. Congress is a stretch because the legislative bodies of the state and national level have much more power and authority than a legislative body does at the local level.”
“Yes, it’s important. Yes, it has implication for the city of Ferguson,” he added. “Yes, it has some symbolic representation for other issues. But much more is being made of it than is the case than it actually is.”