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Ferguson underdog, outspent by more than 12 to 1, topples prosecutor who handled Michael Brown shooting

Ferguson underdog, outspent by more than 12 to 1, topples prosecutor who handled Michael Brown shooting
St. Louis County Prosecuting Atty. Robert McCulloch in 2015. (J.B. Forbes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

On Tuesday night, Robert McCulloch’s 28-year tenure as St. Louis County prosecutor came to a sudden, unexpected end.

In a Democratic primary election, McCulloch got trounced 57% to 43% by Wesley Bell, a city councilman from the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo.

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You might remember McCulloch. For a brief moment, on Nov. 24, 2014, he was the most-watched law enforcement official in America.

That night, eastern Missouri was bracing for violence as McCulloch announced that a grand jury had declined to indict police Officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown after a struggle in the city of Ferguson.

Wilson is white. Brown was black. Protesters had wanted Wilson charged with murder, and a riot ensued when he wasn’t. McCulloch, who is white, defended his office’s handling of the case while chiding the public for not pushing for substantive social change after past racial traumas.

“How many years have we talked about the issues that lead to incidents like this? And yet, after a period of time, it just fades away,” McCulloch, a Democrat who had been in office since 1990, said in announcing the grand jury’s decision. "I urge everyone who was engaged in the conversation, who was engaged in the demonstrations, to keep that going.”

McCulloch, 67, got his wish.

Bell, 43, who is black, rode to victory behind the sustained reformist forces that McCulloch’s announcement helped unleash in 2014.

Bell campaigned on limiting the use of cash bail, declining to charge low-level marijuana cases, ending the death penalty and “resist[ing] the Trump administration.” No other candidates are expected to be in the general election, making Bell the prosecutor-elect.

“It couldn’t have ended any other way,” said Bell’s campaign manager, Josi Nielsen, adding that Bell’s victory closed “the circle that started four years ago.… It’s the right message at the right time.”

The protests in Ferguson brought searing, fresh criticisms of the criminal justice system, not just for how police shootings are investigated, but for how governments enforce laws as simple as speed limits.

Investigations by journalists and federal officials revealed that small cities in north St. Louis County, like Ferguson, had heavily relied upon tickets and minor infractions as sources of revenue, with town jails filled up like debtors’ prisons with poor, black residents who had missed their court dates or couldn’t afford their fines.

The protests also brought a wave of new city leaders to office in Ferguson and elsewhere. Bell, a former municipal judge and prosecutor, was one of them, winning a spot on the City Council in 2015.

Still, McCulloch had been the heavy favorite to win reelection for county prosecutor this year, drawing endorsements from local police associations and trade unions.

A little over a month ago, he was leading Bell among 600 likely Democratic primary voters, 52% to 26%, in a private survey conducted by Brilliant Corners, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, according to a partial summary of survey results obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

McCulloch also had a major fundraising advantage. His campaign committee outspent Bell’s $721,888 to $58,755, or by more than 12 to 1, according to the most recently available finance records.

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“Six weeks ago, when we knocked on doors to canvas, we had a 1% name recognition,” said Nielsen, who had never run a campaign before Bell's.

But the campaign quickly gained recognition, Nielsen said. “Four weeks ago, it went up to 25%; three weeks ago, 35% to 40%. I can’t even tell you what it was in the last week,” Nielsen said.

Bell had some heavy institutional support of his own, receiving endorsements from Color of Change and many progressive local advocacy groups.

He also benefited from heavy organizing by the American Civil Liberties Union, which spent more than $244,000 on radio ads, digital ads, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing in the county to educate voters on the candidates’ civil rights positions.

The nonprofit does not formally endorse candidates and did not coordinate with Bell’s campaign, but its effort undoubtedly benefited Bell, whose platform more closely aligned with the group’s initiatives.

The ACLU has waded into about 40 district attorney races in 16 states across the U.S. this year as part of its 3-year-old Campaign for Smart Justice, which is aimed at reducing the nation’s jail population — one of many national criminal justice reform initiatives that gained steam after the 2014 protests in Ferguson.

“We view prosecutors as one of the most important links in the mass incarceration movement in the United States,” said Taylor Pendergrass, a senior campaign strategist at the ACLU, who said “incidents like the murder of Michael Brown” had been galvanizing for the criminal justice reform movement in the U.S.

“Just as we did in St. Louis, we’ve spent a lot of time throughout the country educating the public, and especially voters, about the importance of these local races, the power these prosecutors have,” Pendergrass said.

Bell’s campaign manager said that persuading voters to back Bell wasn’t difficult.

“As soon as people heard Wesley’s message, unless they went to kindergarten with Bob [McCulloch], or were a blood relative, we had them after 30 seconds, or five minutes,” Nielsen said, citing the “damage done to our community” by the status quo.

“Everybody rose up and went to the streets and knocked on doors,” Nielsen said. “St. Louis is now going to have a chance to take a new direction.”

McCulloch didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. After his election loss, he told reporters he would probably retire, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — adding that he had no regrets about how he handled the Ferguson investigation.

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