When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death on August 9, 2014 I had no idea how my life would be changed. I was living in western Ferguson, MO at the time trying to figure out how to get a job in the baseball industry. I was divorced and living with my sister.
When the protests began I started showing up in front of the Ferguson police station to commiserate with a group that had begun a vigil of sorts. We talked about the public relations group that was all-white the City hired to do damage control on its reputation. The crowds and the pressure and the tension built over time to where they all crested and we decided we needed to be a family and take it all on ourselves to push for change in Ferguson.
Six months later I found myself running for city council in Ward 2. My opponent was Brian Fletcher, a former two-time mayor and head of I Love Ferguson. I was explicitly a protest candidate—idealistic, fiery, and convinced of my righteousness taking on a local philanthropic legend.
Turnout soared (from terribly low levels) and more votes were cast than in years. Fletcher won, but I got the third-highest vote total ever, more than many persons who won office in Ferguson, including most of the people on the Council now.
Since that time I spent last spring and early summer working on the campaign to recall Mayor James Knowles. I was the plaintiff in the lawsuit against him. Our task was to get enough signatures to force a recall election. We believe we did, but some signatures were invalidated and we lost the case.
After that I spent six months going to every street in Ferguson collecting signatures to get body cameras for police on the local ballot. I learned very recently (before the election) that despite getting the required signatures the proposition would not be on the ballot because the Department of Justice mandated body cameras for police in the consent decree.
I was outdoors through the winter and became a fan of the practice. I got into great condition. I learned how to dress perfectly for every different kind of day. I went straight into another campaign for Ward 2 City Council.
Here’s what happened: Dwayne James is a Ward 2 councilman. He must leave due to term limits. That was the seat I was running for this year. In the interim, Mr. Fletcher died of a heart attack in January. I asked for the position. After a lot of rigmarole, interviews, intrigue, and poker faces I got no support for the job from the people on the Council. They were never going to appoint me to the seat. Ultimately, they selected Laverne Mitchom, an African-American woman.
I was campaigning already, so it was back to it. I loved campaigning, and the ability to do it two years in a row was so gratifying. I didn’t need Google Maps much anymore. I knew who to avoid. I was in better shape and could be more productive. I relished the routine. I told people I was able to get my Vitamin D and tell folks I was the shit all day, who wouldn’t like that?!
My election last week fell apart. It was worse than the worst-case scenario about which I worried. My base, the black community, did not turn out as I had hoped. Four out of five voters stayed home. Two hundred fewer African-Americans voted this year than last. And I could make no inroads with whites, garnering just 33 votes from them out of a possible 1,300.
In this election I got the most black votes in a ward that is predominantly black. For two years in a row I got the most black votes in this election, but considering that blacks are voting at a twenty percent rate they can’t make a dent in the decision when whites are voting at sixty-five percent. If my base had turned out in force I would have won, and of course that was the plan.
I have been lamenting my fate, doing endless postmortems, re-checking the numbers, and making recriminations, but the fact is that there was no path to victory in the present environment.
People here know what I stand for and I am a polarizing figure. This wasn’t Wesley Bell versus Lee Smith in Ward 3 last year, for instance. They are both African-Americans, and both were viewed as change candidates. We liked Lee Smith, and it’s clear he would have been the better choice. Wesley wants to fit in with the white power structure. His voters don’t know he’s a Republican (these are non-partisan races). He is an achiever who represents a liberal Democratic constituency that is almost one hundred percent black.
Wesley authored the “Yes, but…” stipulations to the consent decree that initially got us sued by the United States of America. The Council felt it couldn’t turn in its homework without fiddling in the margins. It appeared to be a disastrous gambit when the Council unanimously—essentially—said No to the decree.
Ward 2 Ferguson is the seat of white power in this town. Whites still care about Ferguson and will fightfor their version of it. Ward 2 is where they can do so with the most vigor.
In the fall I learned that I would be running against Heather Robinett, a white woman who lives a block away from me. Later, Annette Jenkins got into the race. She is an older black woman who lives around the corner. Mayor Knowles asked Ms. Jenkins to enter the race to take votes away from me…so they had a triangulation strategy in store for the dangerous radical.
It worked, but not the way anyone had foreseen. It was not a contest. The black vote was one hundred percent inconsequential; it was not a factor in determining the winner. Here’s the vote from April 5, 2016:
The Black Vote in Ward 2 Ferguson:
Hudgins-235; Jenkins-155; Robinett-155
The White Vote in Ward 2 Ferguson:
Robinett-670; Hudgins-33; Jenkins-15
Robinett Total: 825
Hudgins Total: 268
Jenkins Total: 170
Two out of three white voters went to the polls and gave Mrs. Robinett almost nine out of ten of their votes. One out of five black voters turned out and split their votes three ways. Even though black voters in Ferguson outnumber white voters 2,700 to 1,300, it is the white voters who are the 800-pound gorilla in the room in municipal elections held in April.
I won’t go over the history of African-Americans and voting in this country, and I don’t particularly want to revisit what happened to me, again, but here are the outlines: In 2013, the last time we had city council elections prior to Mike Brown, voting rates for blacks and whites were six percent and seventeen percent, respectively. Since last year voting by both groups is up approximately 350 percent. That’s great, but my folks started from nothing. We are basically playing catch-up, but at least we are doing it at the same rate. Unfortunately, it did fall a bit in 2016.
Energy, motivation, and interest in voting are way up, but they are not up enough among my potential voters to be able to get anything done. We don’t throw our weight around. That WAS NOT a part of the plan.
Heather Robinett didn’t win Ward 2; we gave it to her. It was all in our hands, but there are so many factors conspiring against us that it can’t be done, barring a few things I’m about to discuss.
I am poison to Fletcher/Robinett voters. They caricatured me as a dangerous radical who would destroy the town. There’s a whiff of race traitor to the discourse; whites feel free to grind their teeth when they think of a white man doing and saying things they thought could only come from an African-American who is bitter about his experiences. They have taken relish in pounding me metaphorically at the ballot box.
I’m disappointed that I didn’t do even better than I did with black voters, who gave both Jenkins and Robinett over 150 votes. Neither of them campaigned in any significant, traditional sense of the word. They did it differently, however: Robinett had built-in white support; she essentially inherited all of the Fletcher vote from 2015. Jenkins didn’t work at all. She is physically incapable of canvassing. She took votes away from me, but it still didn’t even matter.
840 black voters may vote at First Baptist Church, where I vote. 360 white voters are assigned to that polling place. The whites outvoted blacks three to one last Tuesday. One hundred black voters turned out there. I needed at least 200 votes out of First Baptist and got about 40. It was one of several killers for me. I did poorly at First Presbyterian Church, an all-wards station, (meaning there are fewer Ward 2 voters there), and at Lee Hamilton Elementary School, which hosts Wards 1 and 2.
I did very well at the place I chose to spend most of Election Day—Johnson-Wabash Elementary School. I was there for a good chunk of Election Day 2015, and I seemed to do well there that day. It seemed even better this time. The Robinett’s gave up on the station at 3 pm. The others thought they were losing.
We knew that Johnson-Wabash gave a skewed view of things, a too-rosy picture of the unfoldingelection from our perspective. So we tempered our expectations, knowing other places would be different, and also noticing that turnout did not look good. My emotions were in check, but I found myself praying for the first time since I don’t know when. I would say, “Please God, let me win. Please.”
I got the lion’s share of my votes right where I stood that day. It was a good way to go out.
They placed these elections in April a long time ago to suppress voter turnout, and it really works. Many of my potential universe of voters vote only in November, if they vote at all. The first change we need to make is to move these things to November; that’s the first reform I will propose to the Ferguson City Council.
Do you realize that if I had gotten just four out of ten black voters to vote for me I would have won by 300 votes? I couldn’t lose! I would think about four out of ten on my morning walks.
I champion the interests of the oppressed in Ferguson. The white power structure can turn to a deep bench of milquetoast Fletcher replacements who can turn back anyone without extraordinary financial resources, organization, and talent. In the present environment, I would need $250,000 a year ahead of time to win as a protest candidate in Ward 2. I would need a salaried staff to do research, outreach, education, seminars, etc. We would need money for city-wide events. It would require the greatest get-out-the-vote effort you have ever seen. I’m talking a fleet of shuttle buses running regularly through the day on Election Day. We would need to plan a miniature national holiday of sorts, getting everyone to agree to skip work on this day, and do it months ahead of time. This occurred to me today, and I think it’s a very interesting idea.
This kind of campaign would be super-outsized and controversial. It also would be unprecedented, and extremely unlikely. Where am I going to get that kind of money, and why wouldn’t I run for a higher office if I could? I have done this twice now, and I’m telling you that’s the way it is.
I would need this team of pros, successful technicians who understand the task and can execute their plan. The goal would be to turn out at least three of five black voters. If you did that here, and focused the votes on one candidate, you would have an impregnable position in the election; whites could vote for one person at one hundred percent and they could not win. That’s what we want to be able to do to them: we want to make it impossible for a Heather Robinett to win Ward 2 in the 21st century.
Voting is way up in Ward 2 Ferguson, among blacks and whites, at about the same rate. For two cycles in a row I got the most black votes. Those are facts of which I can be proud. However, we have seen how important the City is in our lives. I would have thought that a year and a half after Mike Brown, the DOJ Report, and two proposed tax increases on the ballot, folks would come out in force. In fact, more whites turned out this year than last. There was a property tax increase and a sales tax increase on the ballot. I asked my friend Tony, What if they come out to vote against the property tax increase but don’t vote for me? Tony replied, “Any ‘No’ vote is a vote for you.” Tony was wrong. The well-off passed off new funding for the town to the poor by saying no to the property tax increase but approving the sales tax increase. Ironically, Mrs. Robinett was for both increases.
I had a year to work on this and I had better name recognition. I provided a level of constituent service that will probably be unmatched. I worked harder than ever. I got to know Ferguson so well I can tell how housing segregation was planned and managed. It appears that our wards are gerrymandered, and that certain addresses have been kept white for political purposes.
None of what I did was nearly enough to reverse history.
My first inclination was to throw in the towel. I said I would never go to City Hall again. I have reconsidered. We have a democracy gap between blacks and whites that is a crisis. When the descendants of enslaved peoples comprise most of your town and they can’t access the levers of power;they can’t get what they want and need from their government, something is wrong, something is off, and it’s not just one thing, it’s a whole host of dilemmas. I will be talking to the Council about this democracy gap.
I have received many kind and thoughtful messages from around the country. They have encouraged me to continue to fight for what is right. Maybe things weren’t closed off on Tuesday.
I can hold my head high. Most people here like me and my program, they just don’t act on it. Chris King of the St. Louis American reminded today that if the voters didn’t come out and come out for you, they weren’t your voters. I get it, but I’m into extrapolation fantasies and self-delusion. Allow me this for a bit, if you will.
A lone insurgent calling for major change cannot beat a status quo candidate in this ward barring massive infusions of money, or compulsory voting.
I want to tell you about my friend, Tony. We have had our ups and downs, but we tight. He is a master of logistics, planning, and getting along with people. He inspires people to go above and beyond. He is the ultimate pragmatist—whatever works is what we’ll do. I say examine the process. He just wants results, now.
Near the end of the day Tuesday, our trio of me, Tony, and Alicia came together at Johnson-Wabash. Tony would buttonhole a voter, take my flier, and say to him or her. “This guy’s for US. See this man? He’s for US. I wouldn’t be out here if he wasn’t a good man.” It was very effective. I will cherish such memories, and I am so grateful to be his friend.
I asked him last night what was going on and he said, “Everyone is tired and war torn.” It stuck with me. The adrenaline has worn off and we have come down precipitously. I regret not being able to help these wonderful folks in Ferguson. Perhaps I can do that some other way.
I was a very good candidate for this particular job, if I do say so myself. I keep waiting for the world to settle up with me and become fair. I’m going to keep waiting, but, while I do, I won’t sulk and I will be busy.