STL County prosecutor Bell launches campaign against Hawley, would be MO’s first Black senator

Tribune Content Agency

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell on Wednesday launched a campaign for U.S. Senate in Missouri as a Democrat, attempting to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Josh Hawley in 2024.

Bell, 48, the first Black county prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County history, would be the first Black senator from Missouri if elected. He will face former Marine Lucas Kunce and Columbia community activist December Harmon in the Democratic primary.

Bell, who ran a campaign for prosecutor focused on policing reform, was elected in a landslide upset in 2018 against Bob McCulloch, the longtime Democratic prosecutor who was heavily criticized for his handling of the 2014 killing by a police officer of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown that led to a wave of unrest in Ferguson.

A video announcing his Senate campaign uses clips from news coverage of the protests in Ferguson, with footage of Bell talking about the need for the community to get involved. In the video, he attacked Hawley for his infamous fist pump in solidarity with protesters outside of the U.S. Capitol shortly before it was attacked on Jan. 6, 2021.

“When I faced chaos in Ferguson, I worked to calm tensions,” Bell said in a news release. “But when Josh Hawley was faced with chaos, he chose to inflame it. Missourians deserve a senator who will work to improve their lives, not a politician who throws bombs.”

State Rep. Marlene Terry, a Black St. Louis Democrat who chairs the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, praised Bell’s candidacy.

“He would be a good choice for MO,” Terry said in a text message. “I would support him.”

Hawley is a polarizing figure in national politics, but he remains popular among Missouri Republicans. Bell will face long odds in the race to take the seat. Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Missouri since 2012.

Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt defeated Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine by more than 13 percentage points last November in an open seat Senate race. Hawley won his 2018 contest against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill by nearly 6 percentage points.

Hawley campaign spokesman Kyle Plotkin said in a statement that the senator’s team expects “whoever emerges from the messy primary to be the darling of the woke left and raise tens of millions of dollars to try and buy this seat from Missourians.”

Bell’s primary opponent Kunce mounted an unsuccessful primary campaign for the Senate in 2022. Running on a populist platform, Kunce raised significant money but struggled to win over the state’s Democratic establishment. He lost the primary race by less than 5 points to Busch Valentine.

Kunce’s campaign touted an endorsement from the AFL-CIO when asked about Bell’s candidacy.

“This marks an important moment in the campaign as the state’s election-winning labor movement unites behind Kunce, a 13-year Marine veteran who has promised to be a warrior for working people in the U.S. Senate,” said Connor Lounsbury, Kunce’s campaign adviser, in a statement that did not directly address the entry of the St. Louis County prosecutor.

Bell grew up in North St. Louis County, a predominantly Black part of the St. Louis region that includes Ferguson. Before becoming the county prosecutor, he served as a judge, law professor and public defender.

In 2015, Bell was elected to the Ferguson City Council where he was involved in negotiating a joint policing reform decree with the U.S. Department of Justice after the Ferguson unrest.

“My dad spent 25 years as a police officer and my mom is a county civil servant. Growing up, my family taught me I had a responsibility to make a difference when I could,” Bell said in the video.

As county prosecutor, Bell supported training for police, the purchase and use of body cameras and a pay raise for police.