Race for St. Louis County prosecutor offers voters experience versus new ideas

St. Louis County prosecuting attorney candidates Robert McCulloch and Wesley Bell had the opportunity to discuss their campaign platforms during the candidate forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Bar Association of St. Louis July 26 at the Ritz-Carlton. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

Although several county races on the Aug. 7 ballot offer a choice between experienced veterans and political newcomers, the starkest contrast can be seen in the contest for prosecuting attorney between longtime incumbent Robert McCulloch and Wesley Bell.

McCulloch, who has been county prosecutor since 1991, has been making the rounds on the campaign trail, an unusual situation for someone who has been unopposed most of the seven times he’s run for re-election. When he’s had  an opponent, he’s won by wide margins.

With 28 years of experience, McCulloch is the only candidate in the race who has served as a criminal prosecutor. Bell, an attorney backed by reform-minded national groups like the ACLU, was elected to the Ferguson City Council in 2015 and previously served in nearly every role in municipal courts in north county, including judge, prosecutor and city attorney.

McCulloch said it’s clear why Bell is running to take his place — as payback for McCulloch’s decision to take the Michael Brown-Darren Wilson case to a St. Louis County grand jury during the Ferguson unrest.

“On Aug. 7, I have a self-described activist protester from Ferguson seeking to take this job,” McCulloch told a joint luncheon of the Affton and Lemay chambers of commerce July 11.

The two competitors finally met face-to-face on the campaign trail throughout last week, starting at a meeting of the Tesson Ferry Democrats July 23 and ending with a July 26 forum at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton sponsored by the Metropolitan Bar Association of St. Louis.

In June, the Grantwood Village Board of Trustees temporarily suspended its city meeting so that McCulloch could address the crowd that gathered to hear him speak.

McCulloch told Grantwood Village residents that he was running against “another guy who has never been a prosecutor and never will be a prosecutor regardless of the outcome of this election…. We do want to keep Grantwood Village and every other neighborhood in St. Louis County as safe as we possibly can.”

At last week’s forum, McCulloch emphasized his years on the job and trust from county voters, while Bell said it’s time for a fresh set of eyes to oversee the most important office in the county.

Bell said it’s time for a “change in culture, a change in leadership and to start making that office even more impactful as we reform our criminal justice system.”

The Ferguson councilman promised to reduce crime and victims in the county by keeping more data and analyzing it, providing better training to the county’s team of assistant prosecutors and abolishing cash bail.

He and McCulloch clashed over whether the county drug courts and veterans’ courts have been successful or not. Bell said they’re the lowest-performing such courts in the state, while McCulloch said they’re the top-ranked examples in the state.

“What are we holding onto with this particular prosecutor? It is time for a change,” Bell said, promising to offer existing assistant prosecutors better training. “We’re going to save taxpayer dollars with these programs, and most important,  we’re going to decrease the number of victims.”

“And we’re going to do that without ever having set foot in the office or having ever set foot in a courtroom? Somehow we’re going to lead the 10th-largest law firm specializing in criminal law in the metropolitan area,” McCulloch said. “That’s in a dream world that that happens…. I’ve been there for 28 years, and I will put my record up against anything.”

McCulloch compared the sideline critique from Bell to appointing a third-year resident as chief of surgery at a hospital.

“There’s no substance you’ve heard from Mr. Bell other than, ‘I’m going to make everything better,’” McCulloch said, noting that there are minimal requirements to run for prosecuting attorney but “you know what it takes to be prosecuting attorney? It takes experience, it takes knowledge, it takes the ability to assemble an outstanding staff, it takes the ability to work with victims. It takes the ability to sit down with a new lawyer and talk about trial strategy — you can’t do that if you’ve never had trial strategy.”

McCulloch also criticized Bell for being part of the problems exposed by Ferguson in his role as municipal judge, prosecutor and city attorney for various north county municipalities, including Velda City, before the abusive practices of many north county municipal courts became national news after Ferguson.

“You have to reform things before you get caught doing them,” McCulloch said. “I will put my leadership record up against what we’ve seen in Velda City and Ferguson.”

But Bell countered that he worked with city attorneys, prosecutors and judges throughout St. Louis County to implement reforms including universal fine schedules so that fines didn’t vary from one municipality to the next. And one of his courts was the first to withdraw all non-violent cases, “and that was not forced by a court, you can look it up.”

McCulloch said that the Ferguson Police Department doesn’t call in the Major Case Squad to investigate murders, which hampers prosecutions and increases the crime rate. He linked that to Bell’s time on the council. But Bell said that as a councilman, he can’t tell the Police Department what to do.

When the moderator, retired Judge Booker Shaw, asked about their plans for operating the office, McCulloch and Bell offered starkly different visions of how it should function.

Bell said he would change up the office and assign prosecutors to regions of St. Louis County, so that they were always dealing with the same residents and really get to know the communities of the crimes they’re prosecuting.

But McCulloch said he revamped the office years ago to assign assistant prosecutors to cases by type of crime, so that a prosecutor taking a case knows all the ins and outs of prosecuting a particular type of crime. Some prosecutors only deal with sex abuse cases or domestic violence, while others only deal with cases involving children, and some only prosecute homicides.