A chance for change as Ferguson votes for 3 City Council seats

Ferguson is 67% black but its mayor and five out of six council members are white

At first glance, this St. Louis suburb doesn't look much different from a few months ago.

A pile of stuffed animals, lightly ringed by dirt and dead leaves, still marks where an unarmed Michael Brown, 18 and black, was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson. Buildings that burned down during a riot after a grand jury in November declined to indict Wilson haven't been cleared away.

Yet much has changed in this majority black city since a Justice Department report last month detailed racism and "unconstitutional policing" among the mostly white police force.

The white police chief resigned. So did the white city manager who hired him. So did the white municipal judge whose fines on predominantly poor residents enriched the city budget.

On Tuesday, voters will decide Ferguson's future when they choose three new City Council members in the first municipal election since Brown's death on Aug. 9. The council, which will hire the next city manager, is guaranteed to gain at least one new black member, and possibly two.

"The change that will be advanced in Ferguson will begin with the people who live here," Wesley Bell, a black City Council candidate, said at a recent forum. "Ferguson residents are going to decide what Ferguson change looks like."

Ferguson, population 21,111, is 67% black but its mayor and five out of six council members are white. The three open seats, which are selected by the town's three wards, were vacated by white council members who decided not to run for reelection.

A get-out-the-vote push has been in full force for weeks, but with a history of low turnout, some residents still fear Ferguson voters may not show up.

"For all the people sitting on the sidelines and not getting out there to protest, this is their opportunity to turn out and do their voting," said Tony Rice, a Ferguson resident and one of the city's most prominent black activists.

For Rice, the election wasn't necessarily about race.

"For me, it's about morality, it's about right or wrong," he said. "If anything, it will help black people having a seat on City Council to explain to other white members what is happening to black people."

Although at least 80% of the city's adults are registered to vote, turnout in the last council election was 11.7%.

That percentage is typical for many cities, but disproportionate white turnout is often cited as one reason Ferguson's government has stayed white even as the city has grown increasingly black. Terry Jones, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies local government, estimated that white residents make up 50% to 55% of Ferguson's registered voters despite being only 29% of the city's population.

The two candidates in Ward 3, where Brown was killed, are black. Bell, who is a community college professor as well as a municipal judge and a prosecutor in nearby suburbs, is going up against Lee Smith, a retired longtime Ferguson resident.

In Ward 1, four candidates are running — two white men, Doyle McClellan and Mike McGrath, and two black women, Ella Jones and Adrienne Hawkins.

The race in Ward 2 features a former mayor, Brian Fletcher, and Bob Hudgins, who was among the protesters; both are white.

The mayor, James Knowles III, was reelected unopposed early last year, and for months he has refused calls to step down. A recall effort against Knowles was launched March 13, and its proponents have 60 days to gather the signatures of 15% of Ferguson's voters to trigger a recall election.

Although Knowles has said he wants to work with the federal government to institute reforms, he disagreed with some of the Justice Department's findings and has not committed to instituting a federal monitor to oversee the kind of "immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action" demanded by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.

The Justice Department report provides motivation for blacks to vote. Ferguson is almost one-third white, yet blacks accounted for 85% of all traffic stops in a two-year span, and 90% of the tickets issued in what Holder described as a race-targeted revenue scheme. African Americans made up 93% of all arrests and were twice as likely as whites to be searched during a traffic stop even though they were less likely to possess contraband, the report said.

Some of the civil rights violations involved police enforcing a municipal code known as "manner of walking along roadway," the Justice Department report said. Black residents call it "walking black."

The council candidates are not alone in trying to get people to the polls Tuesday. College students on spring break fanned out through the suburb's working-class neighborhoods to get out the vote.

Last week, Mia Jackman, 21, drove here in a van with 10 other volunteers from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., to knock on doors. Her iPhone showed she took more than 26,000 steps a day as she crisscrossed Ferguson's streets.

About half a dozen young men hanging out on Canfield Drive, in sight of Brown's memorial, said they were unaware of Tuesday's election.

"No City Council candidate is going to help us, man," said one of the men, who declined to give his name. Another added, "System's rigged, man."

About 100 people turned out for a forum at a church on March 30 to hear the eight candidates. The council hopefuls laid out their stances on issues including whether the mayor should resign (they were split), and if the police department should be dissolved (almost all said no).

"If we don't have a police department, we might as well merge with another community," said Fletcher, the former mayor and now council candidate. He added that he thought Ferguson police could become a "model" of reform if the city followed the Justice Department's suggestions.

In the audience was Ronald Moore, a 55-year-old black engineer who came to the forum with a yellow legal pad scribbled with policy ideas, including ways to reduce fines for tickets. He also was worried about turnout.

"I think it's going to be very low as usual," Moore said after the forum. "People are apathetic.... People come out and protest, but they don't vote — that's ass-backwards."

Carolyn Randazzo, 59, a white retiree who votes in every municipal election, said she had made up her mind on whom to vote for this time around. So had Cassandra Butler, a black resident chatting with Randazzo.

"I'm voting for change," Butler said.

"Me too," Randazzo said.

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