A Black Missouri prosecutor who stepped into leadership in the aftermath of protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown is running for Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's seat, the Democrat announced Wednesday.
In his campaign announcement, 48-year-old St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell criticized Hawley as divisive while touting his own work in Ferguson, where protests over Brown's death helped spark the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Bell, who now lives in Clayton, lived two blocks from the Ferguson Police Department in 2014.
As an angry crowd began to surround officers barricaded in the police parking lot the day after unarmed, Black 18-year-old Brown's shooting, Bell and a small group of other Black leaders got in the middle and urged calm.
Bell at the time worked as a municipal judge and attorney, and his father was a police officer. He has said he understood both sides.
“Ferguson was a turning point for me,” Bell told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “ When the city, the region, the country seemed like it was ready to explode, I helped calm tensions between police and protesters.”
Like fellow Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Lucas Kunce, who launched his campaign to unseat Hawley on the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots this year, Bell used his announcement to highlight a now-famous photo of Hawley raising a closed fist in solidarity that day, as well as video of the senator running through the halls during the attack.
The photo drew strong criticism from some, but it now appears on coffee mugs that the senator sells.
“We need leaders who try to help — unlike Josh Hawley, who’s in a rush to be famous and pretending to be tough while showing the world how weak he really is," Bell said in a video announcement.
Kunce on Wednesday announced that the Missouri AFL-CIO has endorsed him, adding to a long list of union endorsements for the Marine veteran. Campaign spokesman Connor Lounsbury said in a statement that the endorsement “marks an important moment in the campaign as the state’s election-winning labor movement unites behind Kunce.”
He declined direct comment on Bell’s entrance into the race.
“We expect whoever emerges from the messy (Democratic) primary to be the darling of the woke left and raise tens of millions of dollars to try and buy this seat from Missourians,” Hawley’s campaign said in a statement, adding the primary will be about “ending girls sports and being soft on crime.”
Voters elected Bell to the Ferguson City Council in 2015, despite some pushback for his service as a municipal judge in nearby Velda City. The St. Louis County town, like Ferguson, came under scrutiny after Brown's death for bringing in a high percentage of revenue from fines and court costs.
In 2018, Bell unseated seven-term incumbent St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch in a stunning upset.
Critics had accused McCulloch, who is white, of skewing the investigation into Brown's death in favor of the white officer who fatally shot him. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, who later resigned. The U.S. Department of Justice also declined to charge him.
Civil rights leaders and Brown’s parents had hoped that Bell, the county’s first Black prosecutor, would see things differently.
But Bell in 2020 said another five-month re-investigation by his office did not find enough evidence to charge Wilson. He called on Missouri's Republican-led Legislature to revise laws that offer protection against prosecution for police officers that regular citizens aren’t afforded.
During his time as prosecutor, Bell has implemented sweeping changes that have reduced the jail population, ended prosecution of low-level marijuana crimes and sought to help offenders rehabilitate themselves. He also established an independent unit to investigate officer-involved shootings.
If elected, Bell would be among the first, if not the only, person of color elected to statewide office in Missouri, although Democrats face slim odds in the now Republican-dominated state.
Earlier this year, Republican state Treasurer Vivek Malek became the first person of color to hold office, after he was appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson. Malek, who was born in India, is also running for election in 2024.
Missouri, a swing state a generation ago, has moved decidedly to the right over the past decade. Every statewide elected official in Missouri is now a Republican.
Bell said he's been written off before. No one expected him to defeat McCulloch.
“Not only did we win but we won big," Bell said. "I’m not afraid of a tough fight.”
AP reporter Jim Salter in O'Fallon, Missouri, contributed to this report.