Feedback
News
Michael Brown Shooting

Turning Point’: Ferguson a Factor in St. Louis County Elections

Image: Steve Stenger, Rick Stream

Democratic County Councilman Steve Stenger, left, and Republican state lawmaker Rick Stream debate issues on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis on Oct. 14. Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

The shooting nearly three months ago of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has thrown a local race into the national spotlight in the first major election since the 18-year-old’s death.

Brown, who was black, was killed by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who is white. Following the shooting, calls for better political representation for the black community galvanized many African-Americans.

"I definitely think it’s put a focus on the whole issue of the racial divide in St. Louis County and, frankly, probably throughout the country," state lawmaker Rick Stream told NBC News. "What happened in Ferguson I think just kind of ripped the scab off and exposed it to everybody."

"The Michael Brown killing turned the light bulb on."

Stream is the Republican candidate in the race for St. Louis County executive. His rival, Democratic County Councilman Steve Stenger, has been criticized for supporting Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor in charge of the Brown case. Ferguson protesters say McCulloch is not able to fairly handle the case because of his close ties to police and have asked for him to remove himself from the case. McCulloch declined to do so, and instead formed a grand jury to decide if charges against Wilson should be issued. That grand jury is expected to release its findings in the next few weeks.

Holder Condemns Leaks About Officer’s Grand Jury Testimony 1:50

Stream said he would favor the appointment of a special prosecutor in these types of cases.

"I've called for in the future, if a policeman kills somebody in the line of duty, there should be an independent investigation," he told NBC News.

Typically, the black vote goes predominantly to the Democrats in the St. Louis area. But a series of events, including the investigation into Brown’s killing, has led a group of more than 30 black elected officials to endorse Stream over Stenger. The group calls itself the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition, named after a late Mississippi civil rights activist.

"The Michael Brown killing turned the light bulb on," said Steve Webb, a spokesman for the coalition. "People said this is the turning point. It showed what is wrong in St. Louis County and also the United States."

The coalition criticizes Stenger for being aligned with McCulloch. Stenger’s campaign said the candidate was unavailable to talk to NBC News.

The coalition also claims Democrats have done little to help African-Americans in north St. Louis County, where many of them live.

"Our major issue is that the Democratic Party has not served us," said Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who heads the coalition. "And Stenger has done nothing to help our cause."

Finally, many are also upset over some of the tactics they claim Stenger used in the primary campaign he ran against the incumbent county executive, Charlie Dooley, the first black chief executive in the county’s history.

Stenger has called the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition a splinter group and said he has support from many other black elected officials.

Discussing the coalition’s opposition to his campaign, Stenger previously told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "That is not the general sentiment of the community. What you’re seeing is a lot of political theater."

Some in the community see voting as a necessary next step following sustained protests in the area in the aftermath of the Aug. 9 shooting. "A lot of our ancestors fought for this opportunity to vote. We have to spread positive energy. I think we make a bigger noise if we get out and vote," DeAndre Perryman, 34, said.

"What happened in Ferguson I think just kind of ripped the scab off and exposed it to everybody."

The need for a solid turnout was also discussed at a forum on Saturday in Ferguson.

"We need to vote and get legislation for change," said Anthony Cage, 48. "If we just keep walking and protesting and doing nothing, it won’t help. We’ve got to get out and vote. Don’t think your vote doesn’t mean nothing."

"We can talk about voting all day, but we need to groom people to represent us on the ballot," added Rachel Johns, 23.

Others, however, appeared more disenchanted. Fifty-five-year-old Kenny Lee, who said he will vote for the write-in candidate on Tuesday, said he doesn’t think his vote will make a difference.

"Nobody of color will vote for such a system that is coordinated against us. It seems like change will not happen. I feel voting is futile," he said.