Experience collides with the promise of change in contest for St. Louis County prosecutor
Bob McCulloch won a seventh term as St. Louis County prosecutor on Aug. 5, 2014. Four days later, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson.
Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer brought the racial disparities in the region’s criminal-justice system to the forefront and made national figures of both McCulloch and his opponent in the Democratic primary, Wesley Bell.
Bell is an attorney in private practice and a teacher in the criminal-justice program at St. Louis Community College. He spent three years as a municipal judge in Velda City and is currently a prosecutor in the Consolidated Municipal Court, handling cases for the cities of Charlack, Northwoods and Beverly Hills. He had previously prosecuted cases for the village of Riverview.
Bell ran unsuccessfully for St. Louis County Council in 2014 before winning a seat on the Ferguson City Council in 2015. He said campaigning in the aftermath of Brown’s death made it clear that his next bid for higher office needed to be prosecutor.
“I think when we look at what our region has gone through — and we have gone through a lot in the last few years — I think that there is no bigger impact that can be made than in the county prosecutor’s office,” he said. “The prosecutor can decide not to charge, to charge, give a more-severe charge.”
McCulloch has spent most of a 41-year legal career in the prosecutor’s office. He was an assistant prosecutor from 1978 to 1985, then left for a job in the private sector. When the elected post opened up in 1990, McCulloch decided to return to public service — and hasn’t left.
“I have no intention of ever running for anything other than prosecuting attorney,” he said. “This is the job that I want. I think in the 28 years I’ve been here, I’ve done, if I say so myself, a very good job, not just in the work that we do, but in assembling a tremendous staff. And the experience that we have enables me to continue doing that.”
McCulloch’s campaign emphasizes his nearly 30 years in office, and the 100 cases he’s tried as a prosecutor.
“On the other side of the ballot is a complete lack of any experience,” he said of Bell. “I’m sure he’s a fine guy and a fine lawyer, but putting someone with zero experience in a position like this would be one of those things that is very detrimental to public safety.”
Bell countered: We need “comprehensive experience.”
“What the prosecutor does is decide what direction that office is going to go in, what we’re going to prosecute, what we’re not, what kind of policies we’re going to implement,” he said. “Bob McCulloch hasn’t tried a case in years.”
As a Ferguson city councilman, Bell helped negotiate a settlement to the federal civil-rights lawsuit against Ferguson. And before he took office, he said, he worked with a number of small cities to help establish the North County Police Cooperative, which now patrols Wellston, Pine Lawn, Vinita Park, Velda Village Hills, Beverly Hills and Charlack.
The two men clash over what Bell calls his crowning achievement: reforms to the Velda City municipal court, where Bell was the judge from 2012 to 2015.
“I was the first court that signed an order that withdrew every single warrant in my city,” Bell said. “Then, after doing my research, I signed an order dismissing every case that was older than three to five years that didn’t include violence or a victim.”
None of those reforms were voluntary, McCulloch said. Instead, they were part of a settlement to a 2015 federal lawsuit filed by a woman who was arrested after being pulled over in Velda City for a broken headlight and given a $650 bond.
“The reforms he talks about implementing were done because he was ordered to do them,” McCulloch said. “He was the judge at a time when Velda City was one of the most predatory municipal courts that were up there.”
Not long after the suit was settled, McCulloch added, Velda City picked a new judge.
Neither McCulloch nor Bell is a stranger to the national spotlight, but the attention being paid to the generally sleepy county prosecutor’s race is new.
Color of Change PAC, the political arm of the online racial justice advocacy group, has endorsed Bell and pledged $100,000 in advertising and support for field organizing.
“St. Louis County really deserves a prosecutor who is accountable to black voters and who’s committed to equal justice, accountability and community trust,” said Dominique Sanders, a local organizer with the Color of Change PAC.
And the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, with support from its national organization, is spending more than $90,000 on a radio ad focusing on McCulloch’s use of cash bail. The ACLU is also paying canvassers to help inform voters about the importance of prosecutors.
“I think they, and some of their funders, have adopted the philosophy that, 'Hey, anybody who has been there a long time is the problem, and therefore we’re opposed to them, no matter what they’re doing, and we don’t even find out what they’re doing,'” said McCulloch, who questioned the legality of the ACLU’s spending.
Federal tax law allows 501(c)(4) organizations to spend money in support of or opposition to candidates. Jeffrey Mittman, the executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said the organization opposed actions McCulloch had taken that it believed violated civil liberties and increased mass incarceration, and would work with McCulloch to fix those problems.
Despite the outside assistance for Bell, McCulloch holds a significant monetary advantage. Bell’s most recent report shows him outraising McCulloch in the month of July, but McCulloch has gotten more than $750,000 in contributions during this election cycle, compared to about $125,000 total for Bell.
McCulloch has also gotten funding and endorsements from most of the local labor groups — support that could be critical with right to work also on the ballot.
Whoever wins the August primary is basically guaranteed a win in November. No other candidate has filed for the office.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann