Six weeks after a deadly shooting rampage rife with racial overtones in Kirkwood's City Council chambers, the issue of race has spilled over into the contest for mayor of this St. Louis suburb and produced a uniquely tense campaign.
A community activist, Michael Moore, is running as the sole black candidate in the four-way contest and has portrayed the Feb. 7 rampage as a symptom of smoldering black resentment in Kirkwood.
At a recent standing-room-only candidate forum, the 37-year-old truck mechanic let voters know he wants to overhaul a city government that he says ignores poor, black residents of a neighborhood known as Meacham Park.
"I think if the truth comes out about Meacham Park ... I think you'll understand the things that are going on. Even if I don't condone it," Moore told the crowd. And in a later interview, he warned: "Until the truth comes out, mark my words: Something else is going to happen."
Some spectators squirmed as Moore made repeated references to the night a black Kirkwood resident, Charles "Cookie" Thornton, opened fire inside City Hall and killed five white people, including three city officials, before being gunned down by police. Mayor Mike Swoboda was critically wounded.
Complaints of 'plantation mentality'
Residents are still trying to untangle the roots of Thornton's rage, but Thornton, the owner of a paving and demolition business, used to attend City Council meetings to rail against white politicians' "plantation mentality" and complain that city officials were persecuting him with tickets for parking work vehicles near his home.
At church services and candlelight vigils immediately after the rampage, many resolved to see Kirkwood heal its racial and political divisions. But Moore's candidacy is a walking reminder that that isn't likely to be easy.
Moore doesn't seem to have attracted a large following in Kirkwood, a city of about 27,000 people, 91 percent of them white.
"The guy obviously has an issue," Charles Walbaum, who is white, said after the forum. "He has a race issue. That's the only thing he could talk about. Granted, there are issues." But as for the shooting rampage, "I'm not convinced it was a black-and-white issue."
Moore and Thornton were neighbors in largely black Meacham Park, which has a long history of uneasy race relations with surrounding sections of Kirkwood.
Development stokes tensions
Kirkwood annexed Meacham Park more than a decade ago. Soon after, the city leveled neighborhoods there and helped build a strip of big-box stores, stoking tensions that remain high today.
In 2005, a black Meacham Park resident murdered a white police officer in his patrol car, widening the divisions. The killer said at his trial he was furious that police had not done more to save his 12-year-old brother when the boy collapsed and died of a heart defect earlier in the day.
Moore and two others are running as write-in candidates against Alderman Arthur McDonnell in the April 8 election. McDonnell's lone opponent on the ballot was among those killed in the rampage.
Moore entered the race even before the shooting but failed to get on the ballot when the county election board ruled he was two signatures short of the 100 needed. He is suing to overturn the decision.
Booing and jeering
His presence is just one of the factors that have stoked tensions in Kirkwood.
At the first City Council meeting after the shooting, City Attorney John Hessel explained that in his opinion, state law prohibits postponing the election or adding a candidate to the ballot. Members of the audience who had begun the meeting with a moment of silence for the dead booed and jeered Hessel.
Hessel hung his head and closed his eyes. Just two weeks earlier, he hid behind the dais as Thornton gunned down his victims. Hessel survived by throwing a chair in Thornton's direction and running.
"For people to come out and attack me after such a short period of time, with a complete disregard for what had previously taken place, I was stunned by that and terribly disappointed," Hessel said.
While the political atmosphere is tense, Moore said the shooting rampage might indirectly help the city.
"The community wants to understand the problems that are going on," he said. "I think it has opened people up. Out of a very bad situation, a good thing happened."