By Alistair Bell
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - A Missouri Republican who rode a wave of discontent against law enforcement in the town of Ferguson narrowly failed to pull off a local election upset on Tuesday, despite backing from black leaders unhappy at the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
State Representative Rick Stream lost the race for executive of St. Louis County, a swath of suburbs including Ferguson where riots broke out after a white police officer shot dead Michael Brown, 18, in August.
Democrat Steve Stenger, a county councilman, edged ahead with 47.7 percent of the vote to Stream’s 47.1 percent with all ballots counted, securing control of a county that has been Democratic for more than two decades.
Stream had drawn level in opinion polls after gaining the endorsement of some African-American leaders angry at his opponent’s ties to county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who they accuse of bias toward the police in the investigation of the Brown shooting.
But Stenger countered with endorsements of his own from other black leaders and had the support of unions.
Conceding defeat, Stream said it is time "to begin the healing of St. Louis County that we need."
St. Louis is still on edge, waiting to hear this month if a grand jury will indict Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson for killing Brown.
The county executive has few direct powers over running Ferguson, where the mayor and a majority of the police and city council are white even though African-Americans make up two-thirds of the population.
But Stream, 65, had promised to pressure authorities in Ferguson by making it more difficult for municipalities to earn revenue from traffic fines, a sore point with black residents who say they are unfairly targeted by frequent police patrols on nearby highways.
He had also vowed to give a quarter of county contracts to African-American businesses.
Stenger, 42, said the best way to help towns like Ferguson is through job creation and social programs.
He described the 20 or so black leaders who backed the Republican as “a splinter group” that was trying to take revenge for his victory in a bitter primary fight over the black incumbent county executive.
Stenger supporters said Stream had a conservative record in the Missouri House of Representatives, especially on gun control.
"And then he tried to come over as a moderate. He is in fact an ultra-conservative,” said Stenger supporter Bob Muckler, a retired electrician.
African-American activists will now look to municipal elections next April to try to win political control in Ferguson. They will need to increase black voter turnout which is traditionally very low at local votes.
(Reporting by Alistair Bell; Editing by Jim Loney)