Pictured above: St. Louis County prosecuting attorney candidates Robert McCulloch and Wesley Bell discuss their campaign platforms during a candidate forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Bar Association of St. Louis July 26 at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.
By Gloria Lloyd
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, who for nearly three decades was the most popular elected official in county government, was defeated in the Democratic primary for an eighth term by a Ferguson city councilman last week in what will go down as one of the most shocking upsets in county political history.
In an Aug. 7 Democratic primary victory that can only be compared to David winning against Goliath, attorney Wesley Bell, 43, soundly defeated McCulloch, 67, who was taken by surprise by Bell’s grassroots campaign and support from nationwide groups like the ACLU.
“People say, ‘You shocked the world’ — no, we shocked the world,” Bell said, referring to his network of young supporters motivated by Ferguson who knocked on thousands of doors and mailed 51,000 handwritten postcards to county voters.
Bell won 56.54 percent to 43.46 percent, or 103,388 votes to 79,461.
With a relatively short political campaign that took off only in the last month or so, Bell earned more votes than either of the candidates for county executive, incumbent Steve Stenger and Ladue businessman Mark Mantovani, who had been campaigning for more than a year.
No one but his supporters predicted that Bell would win, and even in that case, some of his supporters said they didn’t believe he could do it either.
“Six months ago, close friends said, ‘There’s no way you can win the race. I’m not going to even be involved, you can’t win that race,’” Bell told his supporters at his raucous victory party in St. Ann. “I can understand, you’ve got a 27-year incumbent. But despite those odds, people in here showed up and showed out…. We’ve got people here from south county, we’ve got people here from west county, mid-county, and let me tell you something, north county came through like a beast.”
He saw strong support throughout the county, he said.
“Once we started knocking on doors in south county, in west county, we said we’re not conceding any area of this county,” Bell said.
McCulloch had never faced serious opposition during his time in office. No Republican even filed for the office, so barring a write-in campaign, Bell will automatically become the next prosecutor Jan. 1.
And it seems likely that McCulloch will be retiring. The longtime prosecutor, whose pension became a hot topic in county government last year, had previously signaled that he wasn’t quite ready to retire yet and wanted at least one more term in office.
Bell, an attorney who has served as a municipal judge and prosecutor in north county cities, is not a criminal prosecutor and has never prosecuted a criminal felony case.
As the campaign became more spirited in the month leading up to Aug. 7, McCulloch protested that it was ludicrous that someone would think he could take over such an important office without any experience. McCulloch had 35 years of experience as a prosecutor, seven as an assistant prosecutor and 28 in the top job.
Until the last month or so when ads from outside groups started blanketing radio airwaves and social media, Bell flew under the radar as far as countywide campaigns go.
McCulloch only started making campaign appearances in June. The two first met face-to-face at a Tesson Ferry Democrats meeting July 23, then met in a forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Bar Association of St. Louis July 26.
But Bell said he didn’t have the same shock as everyone else did that he ultimately prevailed.
He got into the race thinking he would win.
“I think that voters want to see real change,” Bell said. “I’ve made a political career focusing on bringing people together but also keeping my promise.”
But with many of McCulloch’s more law-and-order supporters likely taking Republican ballots, Bell had the strong backing of millennials and younger progressive Democrats upset by McCulloch’s decision not to charge Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.
— Hazel M Erby (@No1councilwoman) August 8, 2018
He also had money pouring in from national groups like the ACLU, which hit McCulloch hard on the radio waves and social media at the same time those nonprofit groups are not allowed to endorse candidates.
The ACLU has a campaign nationwide to turn out incumbent prosecutors in favor of reform-minded candidates like Bell who promise to abolish cash bail for nonviolent crimes, not ask for the death penalty and use more diversionary programs. The ACLU calls the ideas “smart justice.”
At the same time Bell won, McCulloch’s closest ally in county government, Stenger, won re-election.
When a reporter at Stenger’s victory party asked him if given the election results, he would “patch things up” with Bell, Stenger said, “I don’t know that there was ever really anything to patch up. I don’t know that we ever had a difference of opinion. That was an election and you know, I look forward to working with Wesley Bell. We both have to get through November, and following that, I’m sure we’ll find many ways to collaborate and work together.”
Bell has run for a variety of offices in recent years, starting four years ago when he mounted a challenge in the Democratic primary against longtime 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City.
Erby, who is now friends with Bell, noted that previous challenge in her tweet about McCulloch’s defeat.
“How about that!” she tweeted. “Couldn’t beat
@No1Councilwoman but he ran away with this one! What God has for you is for you #seeya.”
Although many of Bell’s supporters spread his message with the hashtag “#byebob,” Bell said he purposely took the high road during the campaign.
He focused on the issues rather than the man, and on reforms rather than Ferguson.
“We wasn’t throwing mud — the dirty stuff was not coming out of our campaign,” Bell said.
“I heard the #byebob chants, and privately they were funny. But I made a point that — there was one post that our social media person put out with that and I said, ‘No, take it down, we’re not doing that. There’s too much divisiveness.’”