JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Black Missouri prosecutor who stepped into leadership in the aftermath of protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown is running for Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's seat, the Democrat announced Wednesday.

In his campaign announcement, 48-year-old St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell criticized Hawley as divisive while touting his own work in Ferguson, where protests over Brown's death helped spark the national Black Lives Matter movement.

Bell, who now lives in Clayton, lived two blocks from the Ferguson Police Department in 2014.

As an angry crowd began to surround officers barricaded in the police parking lot the day after unarmed, Black 18-year-old Brown's shooting, Bell and a small group of other Black leaders got in the middle and urged calm.

Bell at the time worked as a municipal judge and attorney, and his father was a police officer. He has said he understood both sides.

“When I faced chaos in Ferguson, I worked to calm tensions,” Bell said in a campaign video slated to be released Wednesday. “But when Josh Hawley was faced with chaos, he chose to inflame it."

Like fellow Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Lucas Kunce, who launched his campaign to unseat Hawley on the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots this year, Bell used his announcement to highlight a now-famous photo of Hawley raising a closed fist in solidarity that day, as well as video of the senator running through the halls during the attack.

The photo drew strong criticism from some, but it now appears on coffee mugs that the senator sells.

“We need leaders who try to help — unlike Josh Hawley, who’s in a rush to be famous and pretending to be tough while showing the world how weak he really is," Bell said in his ad.

Voters elected Bell to the Ferguson City Council in 2015, despite some pushback for his service as a municipal judge in nearby Velda City. The St. Louis County town, like Ferguson, came under scrutiny after Brown's death for bringing in a high percentage of revenue from fines and court costs.

In 2018, Bell unseated seven-term incumbent St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch in a stunning upset.

Critics had accused McCulloch, who is white, of skewing the investigation into Brown's death in favor of the white officer who fatally shot him. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, who later resigned. The U.S. Department of Justice also declined to charge him.

Civil rights leaders and Brown’s parents had hoped that Bell, the county’s first Black prosecutor, would see things differently.

But Bell in 2020 said another five-month re-investigation by his office did not find enough evidence to charge Wilson. He called on Missouri's Republican-led Legislature to revise laws that offer protection against prosecution for police officers that regular citizens aren’t afforded.

During his time as prosecutor, Bell has implemented sweeping changes that have reduced the jail population, ended prosecution of low-level marijuana crimes and sought to help offenders rehabilitate themselves. He also established an independent unit to investigate officer-involved shootings.

In an interview with Spectrum News Wednesday, Bell noted that he had no GOP opposition in his most recent re-election bid, and pointed to his approach of bringing people together.

This isn't about left, right or middle, I think that's the problem with our politics's treated as a sport. I think it's about solving problems and pushing for the change that Missouri families deserve and I have the experience to do that," he said. "I think voters want more of that they want people who will reach across the aisle and certainly not more people like Josh Hawley." 

The decision to run comes at a key moment for public safety in the St. Louis region. Bell's office appeared poised to take a leadership role on an interim basis at the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office until Gardner sped up her resignation timetable. Instead, the Governor's office, with help from the Attorney General's office, assumed a temporary leadership role until Gabe Gore, appointed by Gov. Parson, took office May 30.

On that day, Bell committed to a renewed level of regional cooperation when it comes to prosecuting criminal activity.

Wednesday, Bell brushed off the question of whether he can balance the job he has with the job he seeks.

"We are laser focused on public safety and making sure St. Louis County residents are safe but I will add....Senator Hawley was Attorney General when he ran for Senate," he said. "we're gonna continue to work toward public safety and aggressively prosecute serious and violent offenders and look at alternatives for low-level non violent offenders who need help but we're also going to take our message all across the state," he said.

Bell declined to draw distinctions between his candidacy and Kunce's in the race for the Democratic nomination. Bell has already stolen stolen one endorsement from Kunce already---Ferguson Mayor Ella Jones, who served with Bell on city council.

Kunce, in his second run for the Senate after running for the Democratic nomination in 2022, did pick up a key labor endorsement Tuesday from the Missouri AFL-CIO, which was announced Wednesday.

"It's a huge day in Missouri for our campaign --- the AFL-CIO has endorsed Lucas Kunce for U.S. Senate. 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, a Kunce Senior Advisor.

The Kunce campaign also announced that he became a father Monday when Harvey Alexander Kunce was delivered at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

Asked to react to Bell's entry into the race, the Kunce campaign focused on the labor endorsement.

"It's a huge day in Missouri for our campaign --- the AFL-CIO has endorsed Lucas Kunce for U.S. Senate. 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, a Kunce Senior Advisor.

In an interview with Spectrum News, Hawley predicted Bell wouldn't be the last Democrat in the race.

"I have made a lot of enemies in my time in the United States Senate and I think people like George Soros and the Hollywood crowd and Big Pharma will pour money into this race. I mean just pour money into this state to try and get back this seat to try and buy it and that's not gonna work," Hawley said Wednesday. "The seat is not for sale, it's not gonna be bought by these outside special interests but I tell you I think we will see a lot of candidates and a lot of money, I predict this is just the beginning."  

Bell's campaign is working with GPS Impact, a political consulting firm based out of Kansas City. Roy Temple, a former chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party and an aide to former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and later Chief of Staff for Missouri U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, is a Partner at GPS.