With voter turnout soaring, Ferguson voters remade the racial makeup of their City Council on Tuesday in the St. Louis suburb's first municipal election since a white police officer killed an unarmed black man last summer.
Of three new council members elected, two are black. Once they are sworn in later this month, the council will consist of three blacks and three whites. (The mayor, who is white, also has a vote.)
Turnout was nearly 30% — more than double the last municipal election, in which fewer than 12% of registered voters cast ballots.
Before the election, Ferguson, which is 67% black, had five white City Council members and one black member. Three of those white council members did not run for reelection.
The disproportionately white makeup of Ferguson's government had been attributed to poor turnout among black voters. On Tuesday, activists and candidates knocked on doors and gave residents rides to the polls to boost participation.
The Ward 2 race offered a clear matchup of establishment versus upstart — and there, the establishment won. Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher defeated street protester-turned-candidate Bob Hudgins, 58% to 42%.
Both men are white, but Hudgins had the support of prominent black activists. “Technically, if we get Bob a seat, it's like having another black person,” said one activist, Tony Rice.
Ward 1 was the only contest with both black and white candidates. Ella M. Jones, who is black, won nearly 50% of the vote, defeating Adrienne Hawkins, also black, and Doyle McClellan and Mike McGrath, who are white.
In Ward 3, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by white Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, both council candidates were black. Wesley Bell, a community college professor and a municipal judge and prosecutor outside Ferguson, won two-thirds of the vote to defeat Lee Smith.
Jones, Bell and Fletcher will join a panel set to hire the next city manager. The manager will hire the next police chief, and will be responsible for running a budget that has been controversial for its reliance on fines from predominantly poor and black people.
The next City Council also must decide how to face the looming demands of the U.S. Department of Justice, which detailed in a scathing report last month the racism and “unconstitutional policing” within the mostly white police force.
In response to that report, the white police chief resigned, as did the white city manager who hired him and the white municipal judge whose fines on predominantly poor residents enriched the city budget.
The federal report provided extra motivation for black voters to go to the polls. Although Ferguson is almost one-third white, blacks accounted for 85% of traffic stops and 90% of the tickets issued in a two-year span. 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 report said. Black residents call it “walking black.”
Activists had feared turnout would be low as usual, even before election day dawned with pouring rain.
“Right now, we're doing lunch and trying to get all the poll workers dry, because it's been raining a very fierce storm here,” Jones said earlier Tuesday.
Jones rode with a volunteer van driver to pick up two senior citizens eager to get to the polls.
“They're calling for rides; I think that's great,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “The numbers are getting there.... I think the rain discouraged a lot of people, but it's going to dry up and people are going to come out in droves.... I have not encountered anyone who was not excited about voting.”
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