Why tensions in Ferguson may help Republican in a local vote

FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - Black anger at a local Democrat’s handling of the shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has given the Republican candidate some hope of winning the race for St Louis County executive for first time since the 1980s.

Protesters march with their hands raised at a rally in St. Louis, Missouri, in this file photo taken October 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

Polls show both candidates virtually tied in this troubled corner of America.

A group of African-American leaders is endorsing Republican Rick Stream. One reason: Democratic hopeful Steve Stenger’s support of the prosecutor investigating the Ferguson police department, which is under scrutiny after a white officer shot dead Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, in August.

That group accuses the county prosecutor Robert McCulloch of being biased because he’s too close to police. He couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, but has denied that is the case.

While the Republican will struggle in the heavily Democratic and black North County area in and around Ferguson, the mere fact that Stream is being taken seriously there shows the level of frustration among African-Americans at local authorities.

Both candidates are white, as are the vast majority of the police force and city council members in Ferguson, even though the town’s population of some 21,000 is two-thirds black.

Stream, a state representative for the mostly white suburb of Kirkwood, promises to hire a diverse staff to run St Louis County, a ring of suburbs including Ferguson that is home to 1 million people. A quarter of the county is black.

“My administration and the boards and commissions that I have control over will be 25 percent African-American,” he said to applause at a black church near Ferguson on Sunday. He told worshippers he was inspired by watching Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” speech on television as a boy in 1963 and said he prayed for Brown’s family.

Stream, 65, has been helped by a bitter primary fight between Democrats which his current opponent Stenger, 42, won by beating black incumbent Charlie Dooley, 66.

Stenger’s team said the Democrats still enjoy solid black support. The leaders backing the Republican “are a splinter group of disgruntled Charlie Dooley supporters who do not represent the majority of the African-American community,” Stenger spokesman Ed Rhode told Reuters.

The dozen or so black leaders endorsing Stream have complained that Stenger is an ally of prosecutor McCulloch. The prosecutor, they contend, has been too soft on police in the investigation into Brown’s shooting, which set off riots.

African-American leaders have asked for a special prosecutor to replace McCulloch, partly because his father, a police officer, was killed on duty by an African-American man in 1964. McCulloch, in a September interview with the Washington Post, said “The pain was because I lost my father. It didn’t matter that he was an officer.”

St Louis is still on edge, waiting to hear this month if a grand jury will indict Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson for killing Brown.

Stenger is probably still the slight favorite at Tuesday’s vote.

“St Louis County is majority Democrat but after the shooting of Mike Brown, it’s up in the air,” said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

Black voters in St Louis County traditionally do not vote in local elections in large numbers. Overall turnout in Ferguson’s municipal elections in 2013 was under 12 percent.

A stronger turnout at Tuesday’s election might be a sign that Ferguson’s black residents dismayed by the killing of Brown could sway the town’s municipal elections next April.

Ted Hoskins, the black mayor of Berkeley, another St. Louis suburb, and a Stream supporter, said a huge black turnout on Tuesday is not needed as St Louis County usually votes around 55-45 percent Democrat.

“We only need 5 points no matter what the turnout is,” he said. “What we want is that African-Americans should reap some political benefits and if we can’t do it with the Democrats we can’t be worse off with the Republicans.”

Edited by Hank Gilman