When Ella Jones walked into Drake’s Place last Tuesday night, her diverse group of supporters was ready for a celebration.
As her well-wishers munched on tiny sandwiches, the news got better. Jones trounced three other opponents to win a seat on the Ferguson City Council. It was a victory Jones chalked up to a lot of hard work – and a cogent strategy.
“Everytime I would say something or think something, they would say ‘go knock a door',” Jones said. “I knocked so many doors, I've worn out two pairs of orthotics.”
One of the people at the eatery was Sandy Sansevere, who called Jones a “sister from another mother.” The longtime Ferguson resident said that even though the election for the Ferguson City Council received worldwide publicity, progress would come from within.
“To move the town forward, we need to know what all the people of Ferguson want and need – not just a select few of protesters,” said Sansevere, who is white. “And people that don’t live here. There have been a lot of people from out of this area that come in and tell us what to do. We’ve all been living here. We’ve all been doing this for a long time. And we love to live here. So, everybody needs to work together.”
In many ways, Sansevere’s sentiments played out in Tuesday’s results. While Jones had some support among activists spurred to action by Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a former Ferguson Police officer, the other two winners – Brian Fletcher and Wesley Bell -- did not. And that provides a bit of a mixed signal about how the beleaguered city will face its looming challenges.
Still, those who helped some of the losing candidates see a lot of progress in Tuesday’s election – even if the contenders they supported didn’t win. Not only did the larger-than-normal turnout showcase engagement from Ferguson residents, but it could mean they’ll be more vigilant about holding elected leaders accountable.
“I’m looking at the number of people who got engaged in a municipal election for the first time,” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman. “And what I see is an opportunity to continue to educate them on how to engage their government to get what they need. So, that’s the opportunity that I see there.”
See how they won
Municipal elections in St. Louis County are traditionally low-profile – even though cities tend to have the most direct influence on daily life.
But after Brown’s death and a scathing Department of Justice report on the city’s police department, international interest focused on the eight candidates who ran for three open seats on the Ferguson City Council. National money and manpower from organizations sympathetic to protesters also helped Bob Hudgins and Lee Smith, the candidates who lost to Fletcher and Bell.
While it’s impossible to pinpoint the motives behind voter decision-making, other factors likely led to victories for Jones, Fletcher and Bell:
- Jones had deep ties in Ferguson through her work with Mary Kay, a company in which people thrive on face-to-face interactions. She also had established political connections with her presidency of the Ferguson Township Open Democratic Club. (It may not have hurt that Jones was also the first name on the ballot, which can be a helpful factor in elections with more than two candidates.)
- Fletcher was Ferguson’s mayor for two terms, which ensured sizable name recognition. He also gained publicity after Brown’s death for spearheading the “I Love Ferguson” committee, which raised money for businesses affected by the unrest.
- Bell could depend on an experienced and motivated campaign team that he cultivated during an unsuccessful run for the St. Louis County Council. He also had ties within the community through his work with the Ferguson Youth Initiative.
And even though Hudgins and Smith received help from groups such as the New York-based Working Families Party, it may not have been that effective. That’s the opinion of Tony Rice, a Ferguson resident who helped with Hudgins’ campaign.
“The outside help was not able to connect with the residents,” Rice said. “They just came with basically manpower and money, and the thing they missed out was the human connection. And that’s how Bob was able to get his vote total up. He knocked on doors. He shook hands. He knew the issues.”
“Most of them, I don’t believe that they lived in Ferguson at all,” he added. “They didn’t know the issues. Some of them didn’t even know who was running. They didn't even know what ward they were walking in at times.”
Bell faced criticism for being a municipal judge and prosecutor at a time when that system is under scrutiny. Bynes said there is something "not quite right about being able to play in all those roles at the same time," referring to how Bell will hold judicial, prosecutorial and city council jobs.
But Bell said last Friday that those attacks actually gave him a chance to talk about his desires to change municipal courts for the better.
“...one thing we’ve been wanting to do is push for these reforms not only in the municipal courts, but also community engagement that we kind of ran on," Bell said. "So it gave us a forum to talk about the things that we were going to do. We were going to focus on the positive.”
“And that’s what we did,” he added. “And it seemed to work.
And while he stressed "having your voice heard after a young man is killed in a peaceful, constructive manner" is "every American’s right," Bell added that the outside groups may have overplayed their hand.
"People were saying ‘Look, we know we need change.’ We know we have issues that we need to address," Bell said. "But those changes are going to be advanced by Ferguson residents. And that’s what people didn’t like."
When the three new council people are sworn into office later this month, they’ll face stark challenges – including picking a permanent city manager who will run the day-to-day operations of the city.
They’ll also have to tackle ways to revitalize business corridors affected by rioting and arson and decide how to proceed with the Justice Department report that accused the city’s law enforcement apparatus of fleecing low-income African Americans.
The path forward may not go as some national observers expect. None of the three winners supports dissolving the police department and contracting with the St. Louis County Police Department – which occurred in nearby Dellwood. And it’s highly unlikely that the federal government could force the city to make such a move by fiat.
“I personally spoke not only to the fact that I was not in favor of disbanding it – I would fight to keep the police department,” Fletcher said. “I’m going to work and deliver on that promise the best I can. And I believe the councilmembers that were elected tonight and those currently there will see forward that we do have own police department in the city of Ferguson.”
Bynes said that the opposition to dissolving the department came from two tracks. Some Ferguson residents, she said, have never had a problem with the department and are skeptical of the Justice Department’s findings.
Others – including many within the protest community – don’t trust St. Louis County’s department after how they handled last year's demonstrations, adding that “the idea of St. Louis County with this militarized policing being their police force is absolutely frightening.”
“Many people in this region know that what we’ve seen out of the Ferguson Police Department is not unique,” said Bynes, adding that the St. Louis County Police Department’s board often has meetings at inconvenient times for ordinary citizens. “It is going on everywhere throughout St. Louis County. And so, there is no one that is doing it better. There is no one who doesn’t seem to be racial profiling. So there’s not this sense that bringing in someone else is going to be the answer.”
“The answer is fix what’s here. And with the help of the federal government and the federal monitoring, I think that’s the process that people have the most faith in,” she added, alluding to the possibility of a federal monitor from a consent decree.
Bell said he’d like councilmembers to play a bigger role than usual in picking a new police chief, a task usually given to the city manager. And he added that councilmembers might want to take a look at how much power Ferguson’s city manager should possess.
“You lose a layer of responsiveness,” Bell said. “If your mayor does have more input and more say so in the administration of government, if I have a problem I can go to the mayor. And I can vote against the mayor. But when you have a city manager, he’s not going to be on the ballot.”
Wait until next year?
Bynes’ main job as a Democratic committeewoman is trying to boost voter turnout. And even though Hudgins and Smith didn’t win, she sees a lot to like about the bolstered participation in traditionally lethargic municipal elections.
“With the low-voter turnout and with the lack of engagement I think with elected officials, you see a lot of balls dropped,” Bynes said. “And there is a point in time now where I think many people are feeling a sense of urgency and the importance that you can’t just vote and walk away. I think many people in the community are ready to vote and engage.”
Both Bynes and Rice added they were heartened by Hudgins’ showing. Even though he was a first-time candidate against a well-known political figure, he still managed to receive nearly as many votes – 636 – as two candidates that ran for the same seat in 2013. (Hudgins indicated he would likely run for city council again next year.)
“He was able to receive and get more voter turnout. We’re talking a rise from 12 percent to 29 percent,” Rice said. “And like I said, in any other business those numbers would either qualify for an investigation for fraud or somebody to bring you in to elevate you for a promotion.”
“His name recognition in Ward 2 is strong enough. And the voter turnout says that anyone that runs against Bob is going to get hurt,” he added. “They’re going to get hurt. The numbers clearly say that.”
And Bynes said it’s significant that the city council is adding more African-American members. She said it provide more than just symbolism to the majority-black city.
“Many people who think ‘well, what does it matter’ … probably have a lot of representation of people who look like them doing fabulous work in politics, in nonprofit world, in the business world,” Bynes said. “And it makes people really be able to see themselves when you see people that look like you already doing it. When you are in the minority, sometimes people don’t really feel like they can do things or achieve certain roles. Because we’re always worried about being the first to break through that glass ceiling.”
“So when you see someone who has broken through that glass ceiling, at least you know ‘OK, this is something that seems more obtainable to me,’” she added.
Jones said the election results -- and the addition of diversity to the council -- are reasons for optimism.
"The only place we can go is up. That’s the only place we can go," she said. "We’ve been down. Now, it’s time to get up, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, start working and put a new face on Ferguson."
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.