Following Months of Upheaval, City Council Races Offer Change in Ferguson

Wesley Bell, right, a lawyer and municipal judge, is a candidate for the Ferguson City Council. Credit Whitney Curtis for The New York Times
Wesley Bell, right, a lawyer and municipal judge, is a candidate for the Ferguson City Council. Credit Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

They gathered under the fluorescent lights of the First Baptist Church here one night last week to lay out visions for their battered town, four aspiring politicians, two white and two black, debating the daunting challenges of rebuilding Ferguson.

Less than a mile away, vigils were being held for two police officers shot early Thursday as they patrolled a demonstration that had erupted with the news of the police chief’s resignation. People at the candidates’ forum, which drew an audience of about 150 to the church, referred to the shootings obliquely as “the events of last night.”

The candidates, all running for the City Council, offered prayers for the officers and their families. And the audience had a barrage of urgent questions: Who would replace the police chief and other senior city officials who had resigned? How should Ferguson bridge the economic chasms between white and black neighborhoods? Was that even possible?

“The questions are being asked around the world,” said Lee Smith, a longtime resident who is black and who decided to make his first run for office after the upheaval incited by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by a white police officer. “Can Ferguson rebuild? Can Ferguson change? Can anything good come out of Ferguson?”

On April 7, Ferguson will cast its first votes for local leaders since Mr. Brown’s death in August, testing whether the anger and calls for reform rising from Ferguson’s streets will translate into higher voter turnout and a new direction at the ballot box. For years, local leaders in Ferguson ran unopposed in elections that drew 12 percent of registered voters, only single-digit percentages of black residents and almost exclusively white candidates.

Now, eight candidates, many first-time political hopefuls, are trying to fill three of the seven Council seats; all three are being vacated by members who decided not to run again. City officials said the candidacies were unprecedented: Four African-Americans are running this year, compared with a total of three in Ferguson’s previous 120 years.

The Council has one black member, whose term is not finished, and the city is assured of gaining a second after April 7. Mr. Smith, a retired factory worker, is running against Wesley Bell, 40, a lawyer and municipal judge, who is also black.

Running for local government is rarely glamorous, and at this moment in Ferguson, it seems especially unappealing. The next Council members will face enormous pressure and scrutiny during their three-year terms, all for a job that pays a $250 monthly stipend.

They will need to reach accommodation with the Justice Department, which this month called for sweeping changes in the city’s police and courts in an effort to end discriminatory law enforcement. They will need to find a new city manager and police chief, all the while under the eyes of political activists and media from around the world. On Friday, a group of residents began a formal effort to make another substantial change in the city’s government, seeking a recall of Mayor James Knowles III.

But there will be opportunity, too: a chance to install an entirely new management team, to revamp policing practices and to take a bigger role in guiding Ferguson than councils have in the past. The candidates said they were running precisely because the stakes were so high.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Bell’s ward on the south side of Ferguson includes the Canfield Green apartments, where Mr. Brown was shot, setting off a national discussion about race and policing. The officer, Darren Wilson, was cleared of any criminal charges or civil rights violations by state and federal investigations.

“I was that young African-American, driving home at 1 a.m., nervous I’m going to get pulled over,” Mr. Bell told the crowd at the First Baptist Church as he made a case for community-focused policing. He said that the city was at a pivotal moment and that the decisions made by the next leaders would resonate beyond a city’s normal work of fixing potholes and approving zoning changes.

“This will be in our kids’ history books,” he said.

For weeks, the candidates have been speaking to church groups and at civic forums, knocking on doors and having frank conversations with their neighbors about racism, Ferguson’s tarnished reputation and the rebuilding of stretches of the town burned in riots last year. While some residents are more engaged than ever, many said they were still facing headwinds of apathy and cynicism.

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times – Jack Healy and John Eligon

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