Ferguson’s leadership has changed drastically since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown put the St. Louis suburb at the center of the debate over the treatment of blacks by the nation’s police forces.
The one constant has been Mayor James Knowles III, who is asking voters for another three years on Tuesday in what surely has become one of the toughest political jobs in America.
Knowles, who is finishing his second term, is running against Ella Jones, a city council member and retired businesswoman who is hoping to become the first black mayor of predominantly black Ferguson.
It’s not for the money or power that Knowles and Jones want the job - it pays $4,200 annually and the city manager runs day-to-day operations in the city of roughly 20,000. It’s the love of their community and the opportunity to be its face to the outside world, or to continue being it, in the case of Knowles, who grew up in Ferguson.
“These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times,” said Knowles. “That I can take the heat but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.”
Since the killing of Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer following a struggle in August 2014, Knowles has borne the brunt of a lot of anger, as Ferguson went from a mostly unheard-of St. Louis suburb to a flash-point on racial unrest. After months of protests following the shooting, people rioted that November when a grand jury declined to charge the officer, who resigned that month. There was further unrest the following March when the U.S. Department of Justice cleared the officer of wrongdoing.
But the Justice Department issued a scathing report that month alleging racial bias and profiling by Ferguson’s police department and courts. The police chief, city manager, municipal judge and city attorney - all of them white - eventually resigned.
Knowles, 37, has remained. He said his life has been threatened in phone calls and emails, his identity has been stolen, his home’s windows have been broken and he’s been booed and shouted down at community events.
Jones, 62, offers a sharp contrast that goes beyond race and gender. Though the election is non-partisan, Knowles is active in Republican politics and has been involved in city government most of his adult life. Jones, who has lived most of her life in Ferguson, is a staunch Democrat but a political novice, serving her first term as a councilwoman.
Jones said she wants the mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive.”
“We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard,” she said.
Whoever is elected will face many challenges. Ferguson lost millions of dollars of revenue after municipal court reforms were implemented following Brown’s death. Sales tax revenue dropped as businesses victimized by looters were burned and closed. Many have not returned. More than a dozen police vacancies remain unfilled, as Ferguson can’t offer the salaries as larger departments in the St. Louis area.
Meanwhile, the city is working with the Justice Department on a consent decree to improve the police and municipal court systems and eliminate racial bias. The process is expected to take a couple of years and cost Ferguson more than $2 million.
St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said he expects people to vote along racial lines. The key, he said, will be turnout among black residents.
“If the black community is organized and motivated, they should be able to elect Jones, since the black population is about 68 percent,” Warren said.
Residents at a candidate forum on Thursday were split on who they support.
Ank Ankenbrand, 78, who is white, praised Knowles’ leadership in the toughest of times.
“It’s been a difficult job because of the disrespect that’s been shown to him,” Ankenbrand said. “He’s a good person and he works hard.”
But 65-year-old Gerry Jasper, who is white, and 46-year-old Darnell Singleton, who is black, said they’ll vote for Jones. Both believe Knowles has been slow to acknowledge the racial divide that still exists in Ferguson.
“It all comes back to race,” Singleton said. “We need a fresh set of eyes and ears to handle the problem.”