Ferguson Black Voter Turnout Is What Worries Some City Council Candidates

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2014 file photo,  Marurice Brown raises his arms during a public comments portion of a meeting of the
FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2014 file photo, Marurice Brown raises his arms during a public comments portion of a meeting of the Ferguson City Council, back right, in Ferguson, Mo. Candidates for the first municipal election in Ferguson since a fatal police shooting brought the St. Louis suburb international notoriety face a filing deadline Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Ferguson is nearly 70 percent black, all but one of its elected leaders is white. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

FERGUSON, Mo. -- The revenue-reaping practices of the police department and municipal court in this St. Louis suburb were widely condemned this month and led to the ouster of six city employees, including the police chief, municipal court judge and city manager.

But when former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher, now running for a seat on city council, said at a candidate forum last week that the amount of fines and fees the city collected through policing wasn’t “that bad,” the room filled with applause.

Ferguson voters will head to the polls on April 7 to select three new representatives on the the six-member city council, one in each city ward. Eight candidates, four of them African-American, are running, making this the most diverse campaign for the government of the majority-black city in Ferguson’s 120-year history.

During the thick of the unrest over the August police killing of teenager Michael Brown, many organizations made efforts to register African-American voters. CNN reports only 204 residents registered from Aug. 11 to Oct. 8. And of the 24,334 people registered to vote in November’s election, fewer than half participated.

Elections in the small towns within St. Louis County’s fractured network of municipalities often barely generate local coverage. But the Ferguson race takes place under the national spotlight. Last week's candidate forum was covered by both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Still, a few days later, another candidate forum attracted barely two dozen spectators.

Winners of the election, as well as the three incumbent council members and the current mayor, will work with the Justice Department to reach an agreement on reforming the police department and municipal court to guarantee constitutional rights. The term for the council seats, which pay $250 per month, is three years.

The comments of ex-mayor Fletcher show the difficulty of changing the town's approach to law enforcement. Ferguson's neighboring municipalities also raise significant revenue by slapping fines and fees on residents. While emails revealed Ferguson’s police chief and city manager, among other officials, were focused on the amount of money generated through tickets, many towns in the area rely on the revenue for their budgets.

“As far as the amount of revenue we raise by tickets, we are at 14 percent,” Fletcher said in an interview after last week's candidate forum. “Calverton Park next door raises 67 percent of the revenue by tickets. I’m not saying we need to issue more tickets, but I want people to understand -- if you think we’re bad, many other cities are worse.”

Bob Hudgins, who is running against Fletcher in the 3rd Ward, said Fletcher wants to bring back “the good ol’ boys club.” Hudgins, who has aligned himself with protesters, said he recognizes the need for change.

“I was married to an African-American woman for 13 years and the only child I have is biracial,” said Hudgins, who is white. “I have a history of loving people who don’t look like me.”

Some candidates said they're concerned whether black Ferguson voters will vote. In some prior elections, barely one-tenth of registered voters turned out.

Adrienne Hawkins, one of four candidates in the 1st Ward, said low interest in the candidate forum over the weekend makes her worry about turnout.

“One of my fears is that the people in the community won’t come out and vote," Hawkins said. "I think we need to have an African-American representative. The city council needs to be more reflective of the demographics of the community.”

Lee Smith, a black retiree and deacon running in the 3rd Ward, said he would rather see young people run, but he launched his campaign when they did not.

“I waited and waited to see if some of our young people would step in, and five days before voting day, no one stepped up,” Smith said in an interview. “So, I stepped up.”

Smith is running against Wesley Bell, a black lawyer who serves as a municipal judge in a nearby city.

That means no matter who wins, Ferguson will have two African-Americans on the city council -- the most in its history.

This story was published as part of a partnership between The Huffington Post and The St. Louis American, which covers the St. Louis region's African-American community.



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