(Reuters) - Protests over a police killing of an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Missouri two years ago forged a new national civil rights movement, and are now shaping a law-and-order message from Republican candidates for state governor.
Four Republicans and four Democrats are campaigning ahead of Tuesday’s primary vote, vying to be their party’s gubernatorial candidate in the conservative heartland state where tax cuts and limiting the power of labor unions are among the top issues.
Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, who is ending his second four-year term, must step down due to term limits.
In the tight, four-way Republican race, businessman John Brunner, former Navy Seal and author Eric Greitens, former state Representative Catherine Hanaway, and Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder are running fairly uniform campaigns.
Greitens says he is running for office for the first time because he was dismayed by the response to the protests by Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster, who is the leading Democratic candidate to succeed Nixon.
“We saw how due to their lack of leadership, Ferguson spun out of control,” Greitens said by telephone.
He said he wants to re-establish political backing for law enforcement officers, who he said have become afraid to do their jobs due to anti-police sentiment, leading to a spike in violent crime in Missouri cities such as St. Louis.
In speeches, debates, and statements to Reuters, the other Republican candidates largely agree with that approach.
Dozens of businesses were destroyed or damaged in rioting in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, after white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014. Most protests were peaceful, but violence broke out again when a grand jury decided not to bring charges against Wilson.
A federal investigation found patterns of racial discrimination by Ferguson police. The Republican-dominated state legislature responded by limiting the funds cities can raise through fines and fees that disproportionately affected poor, black residents and fueled mistrust of law enforcement in the African American community.
The demonstrations triggered by Brown’s death helped to coalesce the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, and Brown’s mother was on stage at this week’s Democratic National Convention.
A pro-law enforcement movement has also emerged, and was given more impetus by the targeted killings of police officers this month in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
While grievances of Black Lives Matter activists may resonate in Missouri’s cities, Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at St. Louis University, said Republicans are wooing a rural, white voter base.
“It’s a law-and-order issue. They aren’t going to be against Black Lives Matter, they’re just going to say all lives matter, and we’re for law and order,” Warren said.
Koster, a former Republican who is expected to win the Democratic nomination by a landslide, defends his response to the Ferguson protests, saying he was on the streets every day during the unrest.
“The Republicans are talking about ‘riots’ in Ferguson ... but they talk about it in a way that is intended to stoke division,” Koster said by telephone. If elected, he said he will push for the state’s police agencies to become more diverse, as well as for body cameras to monitor police conduct.
Long-shot Democratic candidate Eric Morrison, an African-American pastor, believes the other candidates have failed to discuss the discrimination that fueled the protests.
Republican candidates talk only about law and order, said Morrison’s senior political strategist, Darryl Gray, while most of their Democratic counterparts have also adopted the theme to try to appeal to a broader electorate.
“No one is speaking to the issue of racism,” Gray said.
Reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Chris Reese