The cheers and ringing bells were deafening at Wesley Bell’s watch party for the August 2018 Democratic primary election in St. Louis County.
Shocking the country, Bell had handed a stunning defeat to then-incumbent St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch ― the longtime prosecutor who had been sharply criticized by area Blacks for his handling of Michael Brown’s officer-involved shooting case.
It was a redefining moment of Black political power in St. Louis County, largely fueled by Ferguson activists.
“We brought down an entire institution when everyone counted us out,” wrote Kayla Reed, co-founder and executive director of Action St. Louis, in a column soon after. “We defeated Goliath. This win was a testament to our power, our organizing and our commitment to justice.”
The power behind that win had everything to do with the fact that Black Democrats make up nearly 40 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary, and that base had been energized, organizers said.
However, a proposal for nonpartisan elections in St. Louis County could dilute that power, some Black Democrats say. And two Black county council members who initially helped the bill advance said they’ve now realized the “unintended consequences” it could have on their communities.
On Friday, both Council Chair Rita Heard Days and Councilwoman Shalonda Webb told the Independent that they won’t be supporting the bill for nonpartisan elections for countywide officials going forward, which is on the council’s Tuesday agenda for final passage.
“I will never do anything to hurt the people that I serve,” Webb said, who represents north St. Louis County. “And when I need to do my research to make a better decision, that’s what I’ll do.”
Days agreed, “It just does not seem to be advantageous for my community, and that’s who I represent.”
The bill, proposed by Republican St. Louis Councilman Tim Fitch, would put the question of making elections nonpartisan for county offices ― including the council, county executive, assessor and prosecuting attorney ― to voters on the April ballot. If voters approve it, all candidates would run in an August election without political affiliations.
A candidate with more than 50 percent of the vote would win the election, or the top two candidates would vie in a runoff election in November.
The council is currently split 4-3 in favor of Democrats, and all countywide elected officials are Democrats.
“It’s time to move past party divisions,” Fitch said in a tweet announcing the bill. “The work we do in county government is not related to party affiliation. Many use it to divide us. Municipal peers are not forced to take sides & neither should we.”
Bell, who said he normally tried to avoid partisan debates, spoke out against the bill last week, calling it a “solution in search of a problem.”
“The reality is the suggestion to change countywide elections to non-partisan elections is, in itself, partisan,” Bell said, who is up for re-election in 2022. “This is an attempt to minimize Democratic control in a Democratic-majority county.”
Days and Webb voted with Republican Councilmen Fitch and Mark Harder last Tuesday to move the bill to a final vote, saying that they were inspired by St. Louis city’s nonpartisan “approval voting” proposition that voters passed last year.
The impact that nonpartisan elections have on Black political power was confusing, they explained, saying that they watched the St. Louis city — an overwhelmingly Democratic city with a population that’s 46 percent Black — elect its first Black woman as mayor in April with the approval voting in place.
Approval voting is not included in the county bill, and the impact of nonpartisan runoff elections differ depending on the political demographics of the voters, said Mike Jones, former senior policy advisor for former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
“The notion of nonpartisan elections is a door that swings both ways,” said Jones, “because in certain situations, it enhances the likelihood of Black candidates winning public office. And in other cases, it can diminish the likelihood of that.”
Still being studied
In 2017, then-city treasurer Tishaura Jones was among four Black Democratic candidates running for mayor of St. Louis, along with white candidate Lyda Krewson. Because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, the Democratic primary race secured candidates’ wins.
“The general election is just ceremonial,” Jones said.
With the Black vote divided, Krewson prevailed with 32 percent of the vote.
In November 2020, city residents voted in favor of an “approval voting” process where voters could vote for as many candidates as they wanted in the March election. The top two candidates went on the ballot in April.
The city’s first nonpartisan election was held on April 6, where Tishaura Jones defeated Cara Spencer, who is white.
In the city, the approval voting solved a problem of splitting the Black vote, said Mike Jones, but the political landscape for Black Democrats is completely different in the city than the county.
“Right now, the current political topography gives Black Dems the advantage over white Republicans,” Mike Jones said. “I don’t know why you would want to give that away.”
There hasn’t been a Republican county executive in more than 30 years. In November 2020, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page won the general election with 58.2 percent of the vote, over the Republican candidate’s 36.5 percent. While Page has had a rocky relationship with the Black council members, Black Democrats’ support came through in the election.
“When you have the primary, that really provides a stronger voice for minorities based on historical voting,” said Doug Moore, Page’s spokesman.
Moore said that in a primary election, Black democrats make up about 40 to 45 percent of the vote, but it goes down to about 20 to 25 percent in the general election.
“The concern is that a nonpartisan election actually dilutes the influence of the minority electorate,” in St. Louis County, Moore said. “When you are taking away the voice of a large percentage of your population, that is something that should give the supporters of this pause.”
If a Black progressive candidate like Wesley Bell goes into the Democratic primary and a partisan general election with an energized 40 percent Black base, Jones said, then he has a stronger chance at defeating a more moderate candidate like McCulloch in a Democratic primary than in a nonpartisan runoff election.
Republicans on the ballot would benefit from not having the “baggage” of Donald Trump, which works in the rural areas of Missouri but not the suburban urban areas, Jones said.
“If today’s Republican Party is offering you something that you didn’t ask for and they insist that it’s good for you,” Jones said, “you should not pull that Trojan horse into the gate.”
Rosetta Okohson, CEO of MO Political Consulting who led Tishaura Jones’ campaign, said she believes that the impact of nonpartisan elections on the Black vote is still being studied. She doesn’t believe they should be completely ruled out in the county, but the idea should come from voters, she said.
“I would be curious why this is the right time,” she said, “and which voters were the ones that were encouraging this type of legislation to be passed.”
Jennings Councilman Terry Wilson, who is running against Days for the 1st District council seat, said he opposed the bill because voters should have as much information on what candidates’ values are.
“Party affiliation speaks to your values as a person, and how you approach issues like public health and the economic well-being of marginalized communities,” he said. “How does everyday voters decide on a candidate without any other context? They’re more likely to turn to their biases, like race, when making a decision.”
*This story has been updated with the percentage of Black residents living in the City of St. Louis.
This article by Rebecca Rivas is published from The Missouri Independent via a Creative Commons license.