“I told people I would help them,” says Patricia Bynes as she calls me late Sunday night, exhausted after a day of knocking on doors and canvassing for candidates.
Bynes is a Democratic Party committee woman for Ferguson Township, and she’s taken it upon herself to help recruit and advise candidates for Ferguson’s first post-riot city council elections on April 7.
“Consider what has happened here in Ferguson. This is our opportunity to show that these elections matter,” said Bynes. “People have got to start storming the City Halls across America and I’ve told people who want to run I’ll help you. “
In the wake of the Mike Brown shooting, national attention is focused on the politics of this city of 22,000 people, and many are wondering whether the residents of Ferguson are willing to step up and step into local government to make change.
That’s where Patricia Bynes comes in, and she just might be the most important person in the most watched local election in America.
Bynes is an African American Gen Xer, who’s lived in Ferguson township for about 15 years -- just long enough to consider herself a local, though she hails from South Georgia. She’s been hitting the pavement for months now while various political groups, journalists and organizations try to figure out how a sleepy suburb turned into ground zero for the longest American riots in more than 20 years.
Some activists pushed for an increase in voter registration, but that stalled when there was a huge discrepancy between the number of registrants activists claimed were submitted and the number certified by the county board of elections.
There was also a push to recall mayor James Knowles, but that seems to have stalled as well. So for many, the City Council elections are a chance to actually generate real change in the city since last year’s tragedy.
St. Louis has many of idiosyncratic rules about voting and elections, and dozens of local towns -- each with their own mayors and city councils -- which can be confusing for new candidates and cause other problems according to Bynes.
“Part of the low voter turnout [in Ferguson] is because they might be in St. Louis County,” explained Bynes. “There’s low voter turnout because everybody is a mayor and everybody is on City Council. So many little mayors and races!”
While Ferguson City Council elections are nonpartisan, Bynes clearly has her favorites who she, and by extension the local party apparatus, are supporting.
There are 8 candidates running for three council seats across three wards in Ferguson. But the most important race is undoubtedly Ward 3. Ward 3, with notoriously low turnout -- a rep. was elected with a total of 27 votes back in 2007 -- also happens to be the home of Canfield Apartments where Mike Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson.
Incumbent Dave Conway isn’t running for re-election, so the race now pits two African American candidates against each other -- Lee Smith a retired long-time Ferguson resident and Wesley Bell, a young college professor and local municipal judge. Bynes is very clear about the candidate she feels the community “needs” more.
“[Lee Smith] has connections, he has history, background,” Bynes said. “The best thing about Mr. Lee is his personality, very down to earth [and] he can connect with any person and regardless of where they are in life.”
When discussing Bell she is a bit less enthusiastic: “Wesley is a very accomplished guy I just think that right now in this environment someone who’s a municipal judge in several municipalities is a really hard sell in this area.”
She went on to question how a municipal judge that is ostensibly part of the problem in Ferguson could really hope to represent the community trying to create change in the criminal justice system.
“This is about the quality of candidates, a major part of what’s wrong in Ferguson is that the political leaders are tone deaf,” Bynes explained. “Then a guy who’s a municipal judge runs you’ve got to say ‘Is he tone deaf? Does he not care? What is the connection here? What is the reason for the apparent lack of connection?’”
Bynes is working closely with three candidates for city council, connecting them with political leaders across the state and country for advice and support and this has definitely rubbed some locals in the St. Louis area the wrong way. Her name came up consistently amongst activists and political leaders as a kingmaker in the upcoming elections whose influence was far above her seemingly innocuous title.
While everyone wants Ferguson to change and become more inclusive some worry about one person wielding so much power when so much is at stake. Even as citizens prepare to run for Ward seats, the recall of Mayor James Knowles remains a touchy subject, especially since the effort seems to be dead in the water.
Bynes is exasperated by the suggestion that she’s a kingmaker or that anyone is holding up change in the city. She cites a more basic reason for the slow political rebuilding progress in Ferguson: It’s not an attractive job right now.
“[The mayoral post] pays $350 a month and right now it’s a full time responsibility. Who wants to step up and do it now? You’ve got an entire corridor that has been burnt down. You have to do business development. So it’s a lots more work.”
In the meantime there is still work to be done. Campaign signs to hang, political rallies to organize and doors to knock on. Through it all, Patricia Bynes will be there, making sure the right kinds of people are running for office in Ferguson.
Whether or not she’s a kingmaker, she’s certainly making sure the heads that wear the crown of leadership are to her liking.