Robert McCulloch's 28-year run as St. Louis County's elected prosecutor came to a stunning end Tuesday when he was upset by a Ferguson councilman who promised to reform the criminal justice system.
Wesley Bell, 43, earned 57 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, according to unofficial results. With no candidate from any other political party in the race, Bell will run unopposed in November.
"People say, ‘well you shocked the world.’ No. We shocked the world," Bell said to a crowd of supporters Tuesday night.
Bell said, "I don't believe in campaign promises. I believe in promises. So when we say we are going to expand diversionary programs, it's going to happen. When we say we are going to reform the cash bail program, it's going to happen."
This was the first time McCulloch had faced a challenger since the Ferguson protests that erupted over the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in August 2014. Protesters criticized his office for its handling of the grand jury inquiry into the killing of Brown. The grand jury brought no charges against Officer Darren Wilson.
McCulloch, 67, of Kirkwood, faced challengers in just three prior primary and general races.
With 90 percent of votes counted late Tuesday, McCulloch acknowledged a likely defeat, telling reporters he probably will retire. He said he has no regrets about how he handled the Wilson case.
Political observers gave Bell little chance, saying that McCulloch's 28 years in office and fundraising advantage made it nearly impossible for Bell to win.
"I'm in total disbelief," St. Louis University political science professor Ken Warren said late Tuesday. Warren had predicted McCulloch would cruise to an eighth straight term, given his tenure.
"Obviously Ferguson defined this election," Warren said. "Bell made his name through Ferguson, and (McCulloch) tarnished his name through his handling of Ferguson."
Bell acknowledged the influence Ferguson had in his run for office, telling a reporter, "Out of tragedy, comes opportunity. ... I'm a product of that evolution."
Bell has been serving his second term as a member of the Ferguson City Council. He ran for the prosecutor's job on a reform platform and pledged to put a new face on criminal justice in St. Louis County. McCulloch’s opponents, particularly in the Brown case, had portrayed him as too friendly to law enforcement, given his family ties to police. He was 12 when his father, a St. Louis officer, was killed in a 1964 shootout in the former Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex. McCulloch’s brother, nephew and cousin were city officers, and he has said he would have followed suit had he not lost a leg to cancer as a teenager.
McCulloch’s campaign focused on his experience of running an office of more than 60 prosecutors, compared with Bell, who has never prosecuted a felony case. McCulloch described Bell’s campaign as parroting the American Civil Liberties Union’s political agenda of elevating government watchdogs to power.
Bell, who is also the son of a police officer, promised to end the cash bail system for nonviolent offenders. Bell picked up support from national political groups. The ACLU did not overtly endorse a candidate in the race but released a statement after Tuesday's election saying voters "recognized the need for smart justice reform" and that it had spent $244,000 to educate voters about the candidates.
McCulloch rejected Bell’s criticisms that his staff routinely sought cash bail on minor offenses to keep people in jail, calling his claims “very hypocritical” considering Velda City’s history of “predatory” bail practices while Bell was a judge there. Bell also served as a municipal prosecutor in Riverview.
McCulloch has said his primary focus had always been on public safety and looking out for crime victims.
Bell said he would use data about crime, recidivism and other variables in the job. He also said he would assign prosecutors to specific geographic areas to improve relationships with individual communities.