JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.—It has been two years since a white police officer fatally shot black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, touching off days of rioting, but the political repercussions from the incident have only intensified, fanned by a governor’s race in which all four Republican candidates are pledging an aggressive law-and-order approach.
Their TV ads show images of angry protesters and burning buildings and vehicles. They denounce “lawlessness” and “chaos” while promising to “secure our streets” and “enforce the law.”
Absent from the ads is any reference to community complaints after the Brown shooting that police discriminate against black residents. The candidates also show no indication that they believe black students were justified in launching protests over racial issues that toppled the administration of the University of Missouri last year.
In police incidents, “I don’t want it to be a fair fight for our police; I want them to be able to show overwhelming force,” one of the candidates, former U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway, said in recent debate remarks echoed thematically by her rivals.
The campaign approach appears to be playing well with the mostly white rural and suburban residents who will comprise the majority of voters in the Aug. 2 Republican primary.
“The people I hang with, they want the law and order,” said Bruce Buwalda, a suburban St. Louis party leader.
Strong talk has been common nationwide amid a seeming surge in international attacks and deadly domestic incidents, including the fatal police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, and the subsequent shootings of police by black men in Dallas, the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin and Baton Rouge, where the shooter was a Kansas City resident.
A similar theme pervaded the Republican National Convention this past week, where the slogan for the opening day was “Make America Safe Again” and presidential nominee Donald Trump declared: “I am the law-and-order candidate.”
But the political recriminations have been especially strong in Missouri, where the Brown shooting in August 2014 honed the nation’s attention on racial relations with police. Brown, 18, was shot after struggling with an officer who confronted him in a street after a convenience store theft. The U.S. Justice Department and a state grand jury both declined to press charges.
The governor’s race is wide open because Democratic incumbent Jay Nixon, who was sharply criticized following the sometimes violent protests in Ferguson, has run into term limits. Attorney General Chris Koster, the most well-funded Democrat seeking to succeed Nixon, has avoided debating his lesser-known opponents and has yet to run ads.
The more intense Republican primary includes Hanaway, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, former Navy SEAL officer Eric Greitens and former Marine and businessman John Brunner. All have criticized Nixon for not being more publicly visible or forceful in Ferguson or the University of Missouri when protests occurred.
Hanaway is campaigning with a slogan of “Make Missouri Safe & Strong.” She wants harsher mandatory sentences for people who target law officers and stronger community policing. She says she would have imposed a 9 p.m. curfew for Ferguson protesters — three hours earlier than Nixon’s deadline.
Greitens asserts he would have imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and exerted a personal “command presence” in Ferguson that “could have had peace by the second night.” He says he also would have held listening sessions at a local church. But Greitens expressed little sympathy for protesters at the University of Missouri, contrasting them the young military members he served with in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I find it a little hard to hear when I hear students complaining that life on campus is just too tough,” Greitens said during a debate.
Kinder has called Nixon’s slow deployment of the National Guard in Ferguson a “disgrace.” And he said University of Missouri football players who threatened to boycott games during campus protests should have faced the loss of their scholarships.
Missouri residents “have had a belly full of this politically correct nonsense that has taken over our great flagship university,” Kinder said.
Brunner also has pledged to “stand strong” as governor “to protect the lives and property of the citizens of the state.”
The tough talk has failed to address the concerns of many minorities, said state Rep. Shamed Dogan, the lone black Republican in the 197-seat Missouri Legislature.
He said the candidates’ rhetoric suggests that “any criticisms you have of law enforcement are illegitimate, which is not the case,” Dogan said. “There’s a lot of serious reasons for the lack of trust in lots of communities.”
Black residents, who represent nearly 12 percent of Missouri’s population, are heavily concentrated in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas that tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Candidates often can win Republican votes by denouncing crime and disorder in the big cities, said Joseph Cernik, chairman of the Public Affairs and Administration Department at Lindenwood University in St. Charles.
Maxine Rader, a local Republican chairwoman from rural Barton County, has watched the protests from afar via television.
If demonstrators start disrupting things again, the next governor “just needs to crack down on it. I don’t think we need to meet their demand,” Rader said.