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Ferguson Mayor Says He Overcame Obstacles To Become Mayor

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III is one of the few north St. Louis County elected officials who is active in Republican politics. Before Michael Brown's shooting death, he pitched the idea of making county offices in a merged St. Louis and St. Louis Count
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles has taken a lot of criticism since the death of Michael Brown at the hands of one of his city's police officers.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles won his most recent election without opposition. It’s a fact that’s been used to illustrate the lack of popular participation in Ferguson’s city government.   

But Knowles himself said that fact is a little misleading. He told St. Louis Public Radio last week that he had to slog through several difficult campaigns to become mayor. His unopposed re-election earlier this year, he said, doesn't mean that he was able to walk into the job without working for it.

“I don’t come from money. I don’t come from the aristocracy of Ferguson or north county. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not part of the labor movement. I have won the uphill battle every time,” Knowles said. “Now this time, nobody’s run against me. The truth be told, I would like to believe – and I think it’s probably true – that people were generally happy with what’s going on Ferguson.

“Now there are people who are not happy with what’s going on in north county,” he added. “But if you look at all the things we’ve done in Ferguson, generally speaking people are pretty happy with a lot of the developments we have.”

Knowles emphasized that the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer “has brought to light a lot of things that have been going on behind the scenes” and problems in certain groups “that have truly been underserved.” While he’s since faced immense criticism -- and promises of a recall election -- he has said has no plans to resign.

Like other leaders of St. Louis County towns, Knowles is paid relatively little for being mayor, and he has another job. He also doesn't possess much actual power, as Ferguson's city manager directly controls various departments -- including the city's embattled police department.

For Knowles, the last month showcased the inherent difficulty – and importance – of serving as a local official. He said he already knew that from his father, a councilman. But it crystallized when then-state Sen. Michael Gibbons called him after he won his first election to the city council. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Knowles has faced calls for his resignation -- or outright recall -- in recent weeks. Some have been upset at some his comments, including his claim on MSNBC that there isn't a racial divide in Ferguson.

Knowles said Gibbons – who served on the Kirkwood City Council before pursuing state legislative office – told him: " 'I hope you realize that what you’re doing now makes a lot of difference to people’s lives, but it can be very, very difficult. You don’t have any staff. You don’t make any money. And it takes up a ton of time.'

"That always stuck with me," said Knowles. "I appreciated somebody who was a leader in the Missouri Senate to say ‘hey – you think this is a small deal. But it’s a huge deal for people and everything else.’ And I think that’s why people don’t often want to do it.”

Knowles – who worked as an aide to former Democratic state Sen. Ted House – said being in the state legislature is a “totally different ballgame from coming home every night and somebody calling you non-stop.”

“People take it very personally when you have a development that might come in and affect you,” Knowles said. “If you want to put a Home Depot next to my house, people get really angry. They get mean. And it gets personal. And these are your own friends that turn on you.”

Process for recall

Recalling Knowles is a possibility under Ferguson's city charter. But it's not exactly an easy process.

The city's charter states that supporters of recall must gather signatures of "15 percent of the total number of registered voters" eligible to vote at the "last election for such office." According to the St. Louis County Board of Elections, Ferguson had 12,096 registered voters when Knowles was re-elected. A recall petition would need 1,814 valid signatures.

Ferguson's city clerk would be the first to determine if there were enough valid signatures. If the city clerk determined that the recall petition wasn't sufficient, the city council could review the matter. A final determination of the recall's sufficiency, the charter states, shall be subject to court review.

If Knowles were ousted in a recall election, the charter says that Ferguson mayor pro tem would assume the office. That would be Councilman Keith Kallstorm, according to minutes from the city council's April 15 meeting. In the case of a mayoral vacancy, the charter states that the mayor pro tem shall remain in office "until the next possible regular or special election." 

Knowles isn't up for re-election again until April 2017. He said "the only time I’d ever consider the possibility of leaving is to consider the possibility of whether it would really do the city better."

"I’ve taken the opportunity to really consider that. And I don’t see that as a better scenario," Knowles said. "And truthfully, I’ve just been encouraged by the number of people who’ve contacted me – residents, outside people. Not just friends, but people who don’t even know me. Both races have been very, very supportive. I think I’m doing the right thing by staying."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.