After the shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man killed by a white police officer, it didn't take long for the conversation in Ferguson, Mo., to turn political.
On the town's boiling streets a voter registration drive began, calls for city officials to resign stacked up and the Democratic political establishment that held control — from Gov. Jay Nixon to Rep. William Lacy Clay — found itself under attack. And state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat, was right in the middle of it . “I was tear-gassed and shot at,” she said. “There aren’t too many state senators who have a gas mask.”
A year after the anger in Ferguson boiled over, the Democrat who represents the town at the Capitol in Jefferson City is looking to make a move to Washington, D.C. Last month, she filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to challenge Clay for the party's nomination in the 1st District.
“This was a call from the community, and a win will be by the community,” she said. “They’ve said they are ready for change and an activist in D.C., rather than a symbol on a wall.”
Clay epitomizes the black Democratic establishment in the St. Louis region. His father, Bill Clay, was elected in 1968 and Lacy Clay succeeded him in 2000.
Other than his initial election, Lacy Clay's strongest primary challenge came in 2012. That year, the state legislature — in a deal between black Democrats and the Republicans who controlled it — merged Clay's district with the one represented by Rep. Russ Carnahan, pitting two Democrats against each other in a swath of the St. Louis area heavily populated by black Democrats. Though Carnahan was well funded, Clay easily won in a contest that briefly divided party leaders between two families that had long dominated St. Louis politics.
Three years later, the fight is between diverging groups in the black community, shining a spotlight on a rift that has been growing ever since the Ferguson protest.
“Obviously, Lacy is on the side of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and the county’s NAACP,” one St. Louis Democratic operative said.
While the anti-establishment fever in the community may be high, the challenge for Chappelle-Nadal to harness the institutional support it takes to win a campaign will be higher.
"Mainstream people who want to stick around in politics are not going to go all out against established Democrats,” the operative said.
Since Ferguson, Chappelle-Nadal has not counted herself as one of them.
During the protests in August 2014, she said Nixon was "M.I.A.," and that, in her view, "he could care less about the black community." She appeared in a television commercial for the Republican challenging Stenger, a friend of the county prosecutor who angered some black voters over his handling of the grand jury process. At the time, her move drew criticism from Clay. And she railed against party leaders while teaming up with tea party conservatives to tackle an education bill this spring.
“The establishment has allowed us to have a poverty rate of 30 percent. They’re the ones who’ve allowed racism to continue, to allow the unemployment to be as high as it is," she said. "I don’t care what the establishment has to say."
Michael Kelley, a St. Louis-based Democratic consultant and former campaign aide to Clay, called Chappelle-Nadal’s candidacy a “head-scratcher.”
“I’m not sure what we’ve been witnessing on a national level is different much than the local level. People are upset with the way things are going,” he said, noting the rise of political outsiders such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the Republican presidential race. “But to equate that with Congressman Clay and point it towards him? He continues to serve the way he has since the day he was elected.”
Kelley said while Chappelle-Nadal has stood on the “outside throwing rocks,” Clay “continues to look to solutions to the problems” facing the region, pointing to policing policy legislation he has proposed.
Even before making her candidacy official last month, Chappelle-Nadal had begun to court support from a number of groups, meeting with progressives at Netroots Nation, the Southern Legislative Conference, the Young Elected Officials annual meeting and at an event hosted by Progressive Change Campaign Committee on trips to California and Washington, D.C.
Deray McKesson, an activist who moved to St. Louis after the protests began to help organize black citizens, said the question for those who want to oust Clay is how motivated they actually are.
“I think people are tired of him,” McKesson said. “The question is, will the tired folks vote?”
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