Election Day in Ferguson for first time since officer-involved shooting: Will it change the city?
FERGUSON, Missouri (CNN) — The skies grew ominous and the radio crackled with warnings of flash floods. Amid the rain, Ferguson opened its polls at 6 a.m. for municipal elections that traditionally have drawn very few out to vote.
But today was different.
This was the first city election since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown last August. Since then, this St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people has gone through epic upheaval with revelations of systemic discrimination against African-Americans by law enforcement and the courts.
There’s widespread feeling, especially in the African-American community, that if the turnout is low, then all the protests, the investigations, the calls for change will have been in vain.
St. Louis elections officials said they had no indication that turnout in Tuesday’s election would be any different than other years. But among the candidates inspired to run by the events that transpired here, there was hope of seeing greater voter participation.
“That is what our democracy is about,” said Wesley Bell, a 40-year-old lawyer and criminal justice professor who also is a part-time municipal judge in nearby Velda City.
Bell is running against Lee Smith, a retired electrical plant employee, in Ward 3. That area includes Canfield Drive, where Brown was killed, and the West Florissant Avenue business corridor that felt the brunt of the protests and the vandalism. Charred, heavily damaged buildings stand as scars of Ferguson’s despair and anger.
Both Bell and Smith are black, And no matter the outcome, one of them will double the African-American representation on the council. Even though 70% of Ferguson’s 21,000 people are black, five of the six current City Council members and the mayor are white.
The council was cited along with the Ferguson Police Department, which has three black officers, as a symbol of white power in a majority black city.
“We have to get out of this law enforcement for business,” said candidate Doyle McClellan, coordinator of the computer network security program at Lewis and Clark Community College.
McClellan referred to the scathing report by the U.S. Department of Justice that found Ferguson issued fines and traffic tickets to generate revenue for the city.
“That’s not a good thing,” McClellan said as he stood in the drizzle at a polling station, hoping to persuade voters who were still undecided.
The polls close here at 7 p.m. Results are not expected until a few hours later.
Ted Heidemann, a 67-year-old retired airline pilot, said he voted for Brian Fletcher, a former mayor who launched the “I Love Ferguson” campaign last fall to raise money for mom and pop businesses that were hurt by the looting and vandalism.
Some residents see Fletcher as being a part of the establishment, part of the problem.
But Heidemann asked why no one complained when Fletcher was mayor. He said Brown’s shooting brought a lot of bad things to light.
“We didn’t realize the effect some of the institutional problems had on poor people,” he said. “Some things need to be changed and we are aware of that.”
By midafternoon, Fletcher said the numbers looked good. At a church where voters from all three wards were casting ballots, he predicted a 40-50% turnout.
When the rain let up for a few minutes, a stream of voters trickled into the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Ferguson to cast their votes.
Ellory and Kathy Glenn both voted for Bob Hudgins, a political novice who attracted attention as a white man who routinely stood with protesters on the front lines. He speaks often of having married a black woman and having a biracial teenage son.
“I wanted change,” said Ellory Glenn, 60, who is black. His wife is white. He said the couple moved to Ferguson after he retired from the Marine Corps in 1995 because they felt it was a racially welcoming place.
But now, after all the problems rose to the surface, it’s time for fresh blood on the City Council, Glenn said. That’s why they chose Hudgins over Fletcher.
“Quit using law enforcement as a revenue stream,” he said. “That’s like using the military to go into places and looting them. The police are supposed to keep order.”
Angela Jackson came to the polls with her husband and two little girls in tow. She voted for Ella Jones, a former Mary Kay cosmetics sales director who resigned her job in January to run for office.
Jackson echoed the thoughts of other Ferguson residents who experienced something new in this election: candidates coming to their door. Past elections have not seen the kind of canvassing activity that took place in the last few weeks.
“One thing we really liked is (Jones) came to our door and talked to us about her desire to make change in our neighborhood,” Jackson said. “She’s going to be hands on. She lives in the neighborhood as well, and has for the past 36 years. We were kind of taken by that.”
Fletcher, the former mayor turned City Council candidate, campaigned that Ferguson would benefit from his experience more than a newcomer, saying his contacts from almost three decades in politics would be an invaluable asset in getting Ferguson back on its feet.
“I understand that feeling,” Fletcher said of those who feel he’s too entrenched in the city’s old guard, “but those individuals don’t know me.”
The city is required to approve a new budget by the end of June and the new council will have to look for alternative sources of revenue to replace the $3 million or so lost from money generated by traffic tickets and fines.
“That amount will drop significantly,” Fletcher said.
The rain began to fall again as the Glenns got in their car. It was expected to continue off and on through the day and night.
But about 5, just when many voters were leaving work, the sun shone brilliantly. Overheard at one precinct: Good weather brought out the worst in Ferguson last August.
Maybe today, it would bring out the best.