Voters in Ferguson, Missouri, go to the polls Tuesday in the first election there since Michael Brown was shot to death and the city was gripped by the most explosive racial unrest in the United States in two decades.
The City Council races have themes far beyond the local politics of a city of 22,000 people. Here are three things to know.
Who’s running and why
Eight candidates in all are running for three open seats known as ward positions.
In Ward 3, which covers the neighborhood where Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, two African-American candidates are running. They are Wesley Bell, a young professor and local magistrate, and Lee Smith, a pastor who has lived in Ferguson for 27 years.
No matter what happens elsewhere, the race in Ward 3 guarantees that there will be at least one African-American on the City Council.
Ward 2 features two white male candidates whose backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Bob Hudgins, who joined in the protests against police, is a longtime Ferguson resident with a background in radio whose son is biracial. He’s been described as a “bridge builder” by some local activists.
The other candidate is Brian Fletcher, a former mayor of Ferguson and founder of the somewhat controversial “I Love Ferguson” campaign, which sprang up almost as a counter-movement to the Brown protests. Fletcher was credited with placing the last African-American on Ferguson City Council in Ward 2, Dwayne James, who declined to run again.
Ward 1 features four candidates, two African-American and two white. They will be replacing Kim Tihen, a police officer who stepped down from the council after her name was mentioned in the Department of Justice’s scathing investigation.
The two most prominent candidates are Ella Jones and Adrienne Hawkins, both African-American. Another candidate, Mike McGrath, is running on a platform of resisting the findings of a Justice Department report that was sharply critical of law enforcement in Ferguson.
Most of the candidates citywide are running on a platform of reform or cooperation with the Justice Department, although there are divisions within those groups. There is a slate of candidates — Smith, Hudgins and Jones — receiving strategic and organizational assistance from Patricia Bynes, a local Democratic committeewoman. If all three win, they are expected to vote as a bloc on future reforms.
Turnout could be important
Ferguson was criticized on the national stage for having low turnout for municipal elections — as low as 12 percent in most recent local elections, compared with more than 70 percent in presidential election years. More than half the city is registered to vote.
That’s not as rare as it might sound. Municipal elections in Los Angeles, for example, only have turnout of about 14 percent. In Ferguson, though, activists want the number to be higher. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other organizations have been knocking on doors for months to get out the vote.
Still, Maria Chapell-Nadal, a state senator and one of the most prominent protesters in the wake of the Brown shooting, told reporters that her guess was “it’s not going to change much.”
Only 608 people have registered since Brown was shot, and only about 200 absentee ballots have been requested, usually an indicator of voter interest.
The City Council will manage the recommendations of the Justice Department report including hiring new officers, providing officers with culturally sensitive training, revamping how the force handles stops and searches, dropping ticketing and arrests quotas, and setting up a policing system that does not target persons of color. They will also have to reassure businesses and residents that the city is recovering.
Mayor James Knowles, who is not up for re-election this year, has been criticized for failing to accept help and advice from other mayors during the crisis and has consistently denied systematic racism or discrimination in the city, despite the Justice Department findings.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the Department of Justice always tried to narrow it down to race,” he told The Huffington Post. “I think there are things in the report that were a miscarriage of justice, but every instance in the report they tried to make it about race. I don’t think that’s fair.”
The City Council has not yet implemented any DOJ recommendations. Thus far, all firings of police, magistrates and administrators have come voluntarily or under threat from the Justice Department, but the new City Council will be tasked with more firings, implementing training and replacing disgraced members of city government. Is it widely accepted that more people are going to be fired? Does the City Council have the power to fire other officials?
This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.