The two contenders in the race to lead the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office touted their differences — youth and the promise of change versus experience and consistency — at what could be their last joint appearance Thursday.
The men behind each message came together in Clayton to field questions and make their best personal sales pitches at a forum organized by the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis. Their battle to claim the Democratic nomination for county prosecutor on Aug. 7 will decide the race because the winner will run unopposed in November.
On one side in the race is Robert McCulloch, who has led the county prosecutor’s office for 28 years and holds a vast advantage in fundraising, as well as visibility.
Challenging him is Wesley Bell, a Ferguson councilman looking to distinguish himself with a mission to reform certain aspects of St. Louis County’s criminal justice system, and to reverse a reputation that he says hurts the whole region.
“One of the perceptions with our community is there’s a problem with crime, and we need to change that narrative,” Bell said.
He said keeping abreast of data about crime, recidivism and other variables is essential.
“(McCulloch’s) office under his leadership does not track that data,” Bell said. “Anyone who understands measurable outcomes understands that if you are not keeping data and are not tracking the data, how can you sit here and tell us what’s successful and what is not successful?”
Bell also said he would assign prosecutors to specific geographic areas to improve relationships with individual communities.
“We want them to know the communities that they serve,” he said.
McCulloch’s main arguments centered on the importance of his nearly three decades of experience, and pride in his office’s work.
“The public has the confidence in the job I’ve done,” he said. “It takes experience. It takes knowledge. ... This is an office that I would put up against any office in the country.”
He suggested that Bell, who has worked as a public defender, city attorney and municipal judge, does not have the experience required to effectively lead the prosecutor’s office and to deliver on his goals of positive change.
The messages from each candidate, who both happen to be the sons of police officers, found traction among various audience members.
Some saw the appeal in Bell as an agent of change.
“We support change,” said Peggy Neely-Harris, a Ferguson resident who voiced appreciation for Bell’s work to make the community more inclusive in the wake of the high-profile unrest there in 2014. “He’s been like a machine, ever since. That’s why I’m out here supporting.”
Others sided with McCulloch, expressing support for his track record and commenting on his familiarity.
“You see him a lot on news conferences,” said Mary Young, an attendee from Florissant. “You can see this man is dedicated to justice being done to these criminals.”
Organizers of Thursday’s event said they were not aware of any other debates between Bell and McCulloch before the primary.
With no registered contenders from other parties, the winner of the primary will run unopposed in the November election.
Correction: Robert McCulloch and Wesley Bell are vying to claim the Democratic nomination for St. Louis County Prosecutor in the Aug. 7 primary. A previous version of this article in one instance listed an incorrect office, due to an editing error.