City Politics: Choice in the Baltimore State’s Attorney Race, Finally

By Sean R. Malone

Baltimore City is Maryland’s only major league city – rich in history, architecture, traditional neighborhoods and culture. Major hospitals, major institutions of higher education, a major port and, of course, the Orioles and Ravens, who actually play downtown in beautiful stadiums, inhabit Charm City. Much like other big cities, Baltimore has a major league crime problem, fueled by crushing poverty and a significant addiction rate among our population.

This crime problem is not new, and in the past decade under the leadership of Mayors O’Malley, Dixon and Rawlings-Blake, progress has been steady and significant. In fact, Baltimore’s crime rate is at its lowest level in decades and appears to be declining further this year. However, all would agree for our size, the crime rate remains too high. Far too many senseless acts of violence happen on our streets.

Baltimore has seen changes in Mayors, Police Commissioners, Governors and Council members. Competitive primaries are had every election year for most offices and crime is always a top issue for voters. Yet for over two decades, the City’s voters — due to a lack of qualified candidates — have been denied the opportunity to make a real choice in deciding who will run the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Since 1987, when Baltimore’s favorite son Kurt Schmoke ascended from State’s Attorney into the Mayor’s office, Baltimore City has not seen a competitive race for its top elected crime fighting position. Stuart Simms and Patricia Jessamy, both products of Schmoke’s prosecutorial office, respectively held the title of State’s Attorney, and but for nominal challenges, neither faced credible opposition in primary elections.

Ms. Jessamy is smart, tenacious and at times, a pugnacious public figure. She, by all accounts, works very hard as the administrator of an underfunded, overworked, State’s Attorney’s office. She is very visible in Annapolis, fighting for changes in State law and funding for her office. She is a consistent presence in the City’s communities, schools and neighborhoods.

In a city where African-American women comprise the most influential voting bloc, Ms. Jessamy, as the first African-American woman to hold this office, would by conventional wisdom be unbeatable.

In fact, so perfunctory has this race become, that as the incumbent, Ms. Jessamy only saw fit to raise $28,000 to defend her seat, an amount inadequate to defend a council seat, much less a city wide position. In fact, until the filing deadline, this year did not appear to be any different than the previous three elections, when Ms. Jessamy faced little known, underfunded and, by all measures, lesser qualified opposition and rolled to relatively easy electoral victories.

However, the filing deadline this year produced a challenger named Gregg Bernstein. While not well known outside of legal circles, among members of the bar, Mr. Bernstein is well regarded as one of Baltimore’s very best trial attorneys. He is a focused, effective, advocate known for intense preparation and skillful presentation.

In the rough and tumble world of white collar criminal defense and civil litigation, Bernstein has garnered a stellar reputation and built a very successful practice. He is a lawyer’s lawyer. Whether these attributes translate into political success will soon be determined by voters.

In early July, political gadflies gave Mr. Bernstein no real shot at unseating Ms. Jessamy. However, Mr. Bernstein has waged an aggressive and effective campaign fueled by the belief that Baltimore residents could be receptive to the argument that change is needed in the Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney’s Office due to what he claims is the lowest conviction rate in the State.

He pledges to focus resources on convicting the most violent offenders and has promised to bring his formidable trial skills to bear in the prosecution of those offenders. His campaign has been respectful of Ms. Jessamy, but aggressive against her record; a difficult but necessary balance if Mr. Bernstein hopes to persuade Baltimore’s voters.

The contrast between the candidates is stark. Ms. Jessamy is an administrator who has not tried a significant case in her 15-year tenure. Mr. Bernstein, who is a former federal prosecutor, makes a living preparing and trying cases in front of juries and judges.

Ms. Jessamy prides herself on being independent and has proven that over many years. Unafraid to engage in public fights with Mayors, Council members or Police Commissioners, Ms. Jessamy acts as public advocate for her office constantly fighting for more resources.

Mr. Bernstein has promised a more cordial relationship with stakeholders and has openly criticized Ms. Jessamy for what he sees as her inability to work with other partners in the criminal justice system, a posture that serves as an impediment to effective prosecutions.

Ms. Jessamy ‘s website boasts the endorsements of five State Senators, two State Delegates, the Clerk of Court, the Sheriff and three City Council people. Mr. Bernstein’s site does not tout any endorsements; however he has notably and very publicly received the support of Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, Baltimore’s most successful police chief in 30 years.

According to the latest campaign reports, Mr. Bernstein has a significant fundraising advantage, while Ms. Jessamy continues to enjoy much higher name recognition among voters. Mr. Bernstein appears to have the resources to run campaign commercials on radio and television. In fact, his first ad was just released. Ms. Jessamy will need to pick up her fundraising activities if she is to match Bernstein’s activity.

Despite his financial edge, Mr. Bernstein still will have to execute a stellar campaign plan to overcome the advantages Ms. Jessamy’s incumbency and name recognition brings her candidacy.

Conventional wisdom, supported by past electoral results in city wide elections, would indicate Ms. Jessamy wins this race based on voter demographics, the current crime trends and her popular appeal in many areas of Baltimore.

However, conventional wisdom does not always carry the day in Baltimore electoral cycles. One need only look back to Martin O’Malley’s upset of Lawrence Bell in 1999 and Joan Pratt’s defeat of Julian Lapides in 1995 to find examples of well run campaigns, by capable candidates that resulted in city wide upsets .

No matter how this election turns out, for the first time in a very long time, Baltimore voters finally have a choice to make in the race for State’s Attorney. The resulting public debate is healthy, the candidates qualified and the ramifications significant. Baltimore voters are smart. Let’s hope they are paying attention.

Sean R. Malone is a partner with the law firm of Harris Jones and Malone. His practice focuses in the areas of government relations and public sector labor relations.