FERGUSON, Mo. » 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 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. 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 operation 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.
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.
Smith and Bell’s ward on the south side of Ferguson includes the Canfield Green apartments, where 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," Bell told the crowd at the First Baptist Church as he made a case for community-focused policing. He said the city was at a pivotal moment and 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.
Months of voter registration drives by the NAACP and other civil-rights groups added 562 names to Ferguson’s rolls of about 12,700 voters – a 4 percent increase. But St. Louis County election officials said the increase was not substantially higher than registration changes in nearby cities in the same period.
Patricia Bynes, the Democratic Party committeewoman for the area that includes Ferguson, said getting people out to vote was as important as registering them. When she went door to door with volunteers, she said, she found that many people were registered to vote but that they did not know when to cast their ballots or who was running.
"The hurdle in the past has not been voter registration," she said. "It’s been voter education in making sure they know there is an election."
Ronald Harris, who moved to town last year, was unfamiliar with the candidates and the ward where he lives, but he said City Hall needed new blood. "They just need to bring in a whole new regime," said Harris, 44, who is black.
Adrienne Hawkins, one of the black candidates in the city’s 1st Ward, worked her way from receiving public assistance to earning a master’s degree to owning a business to holding a job now with the federal government. As a single mother, she helped twin sons make it through high school and into college.
She said Brown’s death had reminded her of her sons’ vulnerability at the same age and persuaded her to run for office.
"I’m fine; I saved my two," Hawkins, 46, said of how she used to think. "Then, after this incident happened, it takes a village. I have to save more than two. Our community needs some help. I believe that I represent the change that’s coming and the change that’s arrived."
Mike McGrath, 64, a white candidate in the 1st Ward and a staunch defender of the town, said the people clamoring in the streets for change – some of whom have been calling for the resignation of the city’s mayor, James Knowles III – were not following up with action. Of the 150 people at the forum Thursday, maybe 25 were black, he pointed out. The city is 67 percent black.
"If there’s this huge cry for political change, where were they at last night?" he asked. "Why were they not at the candidates’ forum?"
McGrath, who has served on numerous boards and commissions in Ferguson, said he did not believe his candidacy would be hurt by the fact he had been entrenched in city government, making him something of a status quo candidate. The calls for reform, he said, are coming from a "vocal minority who has been very loud."
When he talks to voters, McGrath said, the main complaint he hears is, "When can I get my streets repaved?"
Residents are also concerned about the costs of reaching an agreement with the Justice Department. And as Ferguson becomes a stubborn shorthand for racial turmoil, homeowners worry about falling property values. Real estate brokers say that homes are sitting on the market longer and that it has become difficult to entice investors and developers to Ferguson.
Like many Ferguson residents, one of the white candidates, Doyle McClellan, said he had been shocked after Brown’s killing to learn how disconnected the mostly black residents in the apartments on the town’s east side were from the cultural and social hub to the west.
McClellan, 46, learned that the trip from downtown to the Canfield Green apartments, which took seven minutes by car, required three buses and more than an hour for those without their own vehicles. McClellan, a professor of network security at Lewis and Clark Community College, said he saw issues of income inequality, public transportation and revenue-driven ticketing by the police that sorely needed to be addressed.
As he was knocking on doors to speak with voters about three weeks ago, McClellan said, he got into a lengthy discussion with a sociologist who is African-American. They talked about the disconnect between her east-side community and the rest of Ferguson, the relationship between residents and the police, the pressure the police are under to issue tickets to raise revenue and the plight of black men in America.
They agreed on many of those issues, McClellan said, but she politely told him she believed he was the wrong person for the job.
"This," he recalled her saying, "was a time for an African-American candidate."