FERGUSON, Mo. – The two winning primary candidates for St. Louis County executive anticipated a general election campaign heavy on the nuts and bolts of local government: taxes, roads, parks and schools.
Then came Ferguson.
Sparking a national debate over race relations and police killings, the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white municipal police officer in early August also transformed a local election that typically draws little attention outside of St. Louis.
Brown was killed by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson just four days after Democratic County Councilman Steve Stenger defeated 11-year incumbent Charlie Dooley, and conservative state lawmaker Rick Stream won a two-man Republican primary.
Stenger has become a primary target of Ferguson protesters for his steadfast support of county prosecutor Bob McCulloch — and his refusal to join their calls for McCulloch to recuse himself from the case over concerns about his family ties to law enforcement. In early October, a group of more than 30 local elected black leaders publicly endorsed Stream, citing a "total absence of any political consideration for the African-American community" among county Democrats.
"This thing with Ferguson was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back," said Councilwoman Hazel Erby, a Dooley ally and leader of the Fannie Lou Hamer coalition, which is named for a late Mississippi civil rights activist. "We're trying to send a clear message to them that our vote does count."
With a St. Louis County grand jury expected to soon release its decision on whether to indict Wilson on criminal charges, Brown's death and the subsequent months of protests across the region figure prominently in the campaign for county executive, an office that oversees a $620 million annual budget for 300,000 residents who live in unincorporated parts of the county.
Stenger, a 42-year-old attorney who lives in south St. Louis County, which is predominantly white, dismisses the coalition as a "splinter" group that doesn't truly represent the county's black voters. He pointed to his endorsement by longtime U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. of St. Louis, the scion of a powerful political black family who appears in a new Stenger campaign ad along with former state Rep. Betty Thompson, who is also black.
"That is not the general sentiment of the community," Stenger said, noting that several top Dooley aides are assisting Stream and the coalition of black Democrats. "What you're seeing is a lot of political theater."
Stream has expressed gratitude for the cross-party defection fueled by McCulloch's appearance in a Stenger primary campaign ad. McCulloch, a Democrat who won an August primary but faces no opposition Nov. 4, also stood next to Stenger when the six-year incumbent announced his primary victory.
Both candidates say their outreach efforts to voters and elected leaders in the primarily black neighborhoods of north St. Louis County began in earnest long before Ferguson.
Asked about both the initial round of violent protests after Brown's death and the prospect of further unrest should the grand jury not indict Wilson, Stenger blamed a local "leadership vacuum" for not responding more forcefully and said the county should be prepared to declare a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, Stream, a 65-year-old retired budget manager for the U.S. Department of Defense, is calling for a state law to appoint special prosecutors in all fatal police shootings. Stream said he wouldn't ask McCulloch to recuse himself but said "he should have taken (those calls to step down) into consideration."
The post-Ferguson fallout has also generated a write-in campaign by community activist and protest leader Zaki Baruti, whose platform includes calling for McCulloch to be replaced with a special prosecutor and Wilson to be charged with murder.
Other protesters want voters to choose a more symbolic write-in candidate: Michael Brown.