ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Wesley Bell, who defeated St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch in his 28th year in office, credited engaged volunteers, a face-to-face ground game and a message that reached voters of all backgrounds to help him pull off a stunning upset in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
“We made a point of trying to bring people together,” Bell said. “Our message was about addressing inequities throughout St. Louis County to make sure everyone is treated fairly, and that message resonated with people.”
Although political observers had doubted Bell’s chances of toppling the longtime incumbent, the race wasn’t close.
Bell, 43, a second-term Ferguson councilman, earned 57 percent of the vote, tallying 24,084 more votes than McCulloch, according to unofficial results. With no candidate from any other political party in the race, Bell will run unopposed in November.
McCulloch, 67, of Kirkwood, has served seven straight terms and has faced mainly token opposition since he first won office in 1990. Bell was McCulloch’s first challenger since the 2014 Ferguson protests over the Aug. 9, 2014, killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.
McCulloch could not be reached Wednesday for comment. He told reporters Tuesday night that while disappointed in the results, he had no regrets over how he handled the Brown case. He said he probably would retire when his term ends in December.
After Brown was killed, as protests erupted daily for weeks, McCulloch’s office presented witnesses to a grand jury and later faced criticism over the witnesses he allowed to testify. It was near the end of November before he announced the decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.
Bell acknowledged Ferguson’s role in his political success, saying he was “a product of that evolution,” but said tying his victory only to Ferguson failed to explain the effectiveness of his campaign.
“That’s the easy narrative to fall back on,” Bell said. “For six months, our message was about inclusion.”
Bell credited the work of numerous campaign workers including managers Josi Nielsen and Mark Kustelski, who helped Bruce Franks Jr. claim an overwhelming victory in 2016 over incumbent Penny Hubbard for the 78th District House seat.
Political scholars and St. Louis-area lawyers said Wednesday that McCulloch lost for reasons other than Ferguson. Having served for nearly three decades, McCulloch dismissed Bell for his inexperience as a prosecutor and didn’t consider him a serious candidate. Part of his message during the campaign was that Bell had never prosecuted a felony case.
“It’s difficult when you’ve not had a tough contest in a long time to gear back up again,” said E. Terrence Jones, professor emeritus in the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Wesley Bell showed a tremendous ability to mobilize millennials and get them involved in the race, which enabled him to close much of the financial gap between himself and Bob McCulloch.”
Bell benefitted, too, from other Senate and House primaries on the Democratic ballot that boosted turnout in districts in north and central St. Louis County, Jones said.
McCulloch spent $50,000 on television ads and $119,000 on advertising and political consulting in July, according to his most recent campaign finance report.
Bell said he had no money for television ads, and spent just over $37,000 during the same period. Nielsen, his campaign manager, said the campaign was the “exemplification of a grassroots campaign” that relied on a coalition of volunteers who connected with residents in neighborhoods across the county.
He did, however, pick up significant financial and organizational support from national groups such as the ACLU and political action committees supporting racial justice and the dethroning of county prosecutors.
McCulloch complained to KTVI (Channel 2) on Tuesday night that groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union tried to “buy the election.”
The ACLU spent heavily to oppose McCulloch, including $195,109 on radio and online ads and associated expenses and $47,800 on polling and message testing, according to campaign reports.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who surprised many when she won a four-way primary in 2016, said she thought Bell’s “message and the issues” had driven voters to the polls. Gardner said criminal justice reform was “resonating with voters in the city and county.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said Bell’s 13-point margin was more about crossover Republicans and independents who hoped to oust County Executive Steve Stenger. Knowles said that some of those crossover voters probably disliked McCulloch’s primetime television announcement of the grand jury’s decision, which sparked new rounds of protests.
Knowles said he knew people on all sides and many “didn’t like how (McCulloch) handled it.”
As Ferguson activist DeRay McKesson tweeted Tuesday night: “I’ll never forget how smug Bob McCullough (sic) was when he announced the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. We all needed tonight’s win. #ByeBob”
Lawyer Jerryl Christmas, who calls himself an “avid supporter” of Bell and met with other lawyers to talk election strategy with Bell in June, said Bell “respected the ground game. He went out and shook everybody’s hand and … he talked to everybody and made sure they understood who he was and what he wanted to do with the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
McCulloch’s mistake was not taking Bell seriously, Christmas said.
“You need to be in tune with what your constituents want and need if you want to win an election,” he said.
As a result of Michael Brown’s death, Christmas said, “our community is much more enlightened and has a thorough understanding top to bottom of why our community needs to be engaged and who the prosecutor is.”
Defense lawyer Dramon Foster, who also attended the June meeting, credited Bell’s face-to-face strategy over traditional advertising.
Foster said that although he had not expected Bell to win, “I thought he had a good shot because of what I’ve seen him do before.”
Foster expects Bell’s transition to go more smoothly than Gardner’s has gone in St. Louis. He said Gardner, as a former assistant circuit attorney, had some issues with former colleagues.
Defense attorney Terry Niehoff said he expected Bell to face many of the same issues that Gardner has: high turnover and management problems stemming from the lack of experience in running a big office.
Joshua Canavan, a St. Louis lawyer and a campaign manager for Bell, said he had been feeling confident the last two or three weeks of the campaign, thinking, “We either got this or we created a very energetic niche following.”
“There’s just too many people that were excited about this for it to not trickle down.”