Wesley Bell handed a stunning defeat to incumbent St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, August 7, beating him by more than 24,000 votes, 56 percent to 43 percent.
No Republican candidate filed for county prosecutor, so Bell is virtually assured to win the November general election – which will make him St. Louis County’s first prosecuting attorney.
The upset of McCulloch after 27 years on the job comes in his first electoral challenge following the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, which led to a grand jury process managed by McCulloch that made him many enemies in St. Louis County – and, indeed, all over the country.
“What we had that he did not have was the power of people,” Bell told supporters on election night at Acapulco Restaurant & Lounge in St. Ann, near his campaign headquarters.
Bell’s campaign had diverse support throughout the county, which included progressives and elected officials in the St. Louis city and county municipalities.
Owing to the national notoriety that McCulloch garnered in his handling of the Darren Wilson grand jury, Bell’s campaign also gained national attention – an endorsement by Democracy For America, Howard Dean’s organization – and the support of activist groups, including Color of Change PAC, which claimed to engage more than 200,000 voters on Bell’s behalf.
Locally, Organization for Black Struggle was one of many activist groups that stumped for Bell and harangued McCulloch. Its Executive Director Jamala Rogers exalted in Bell “sentencing McCulloch to an early retirement.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which does not endorse candidates, made an unprecedented effort to educate the public on McCulloch’s record of holding people with misdemeanor offenses who could not post cash bail and the meager results of the diversion program for drug offenders that he initiated after Ferguson.
Bell supporters maintained a celebratory atmosphere at Acapulco as they waited for election returns to come in. Bell had a slight early lead starting with absentee votes, a lead that grew as precinct votes were counted and posted.
“It is an honor to be your next St. Louis County prosecutor,” Bell said as he claimed victory to supporters around 11 p.m., thanking all who worked to make it happen and promising reforms to the cash bail system and other criminal justice procedures.
Afterward, he told reporters his campaign message focused on bringing people of this region together.
“Not only was it about community policing, because that’s what I campaigned on, and court reform – we’ve got to make sure that everyone is treated fairly,” Bell said. “We want to make sure the fact that you live in a certain zip code or you have a certain economic status should not increase the likelihood of you seeing the inside of a jail cell.”
Bell ran for Ferguson City Council after the Ferguson unrest and won a seat that he must now relinquish. He also works as a municipal prosecutor and lawyer in private practice, which he also must abandon. Bell has never prosecuted a case in circuit court, which was McCulloch’s primary campaign issue. As McCulloch told St. Louis Public Radio, “Putting someone with zero experience in a position like this would be one of those things that is very detrimental to public safety.”
On the contrary, Bell argued that progressive reforms to the prosecutor’s office would make the county safer while also vowing to prosecute violent offenses vigorously.
“Let’s keep this momentum going,” Bell said after claiming victory, “so that we can bring change to this county that will make people safer, help people, help families.”