When less than 25 percent of Baltimore voters turn out on Primary Day, Gregg Bernstein’s defeat of incumbent State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is less a cause to crow about his ability to reach across racial lines and more a sober reminder of the odds he faces as he attempts to deliver on the promise of a safer city.
Think about it. What’s the significance of his win in this majority African American city when only 21 percent of voters, a less-than-average turnout, show up at the polls? His 1,167 vote-victory margin?
How will that influence his ability to upgrade the prosecutor’s office, improve its conviction record, implement a tougher crime-fighting strategy and generate respect among citizens so that witnesses cooperate and show up to testify and juries convict?
Those who voted on Primary Day took their civic obligation seriously and may well come out to vote consistently. The likely voting blocks behind Bernstein’s victory: lawyers who contributed mightily to his campaign, residents of the city’s waterfront neighborhoods who responded to Bernstein’s appeal, and a spectrum of white and African Americans voters for whom crime was indeed the issue. When people are getting robbed at gunpoint in the middle of the day in Roland Park or Harlem Park, the fed-up factor cuts across both race and gender.
We should remember that the voters who pulled a lever for Bernstein represent a subset of the electorate and were more than likely in his camp from the get-go because of his reputation as a skilled litigator and his moxie. Taking on a feisty incumbent– an African American woman, in a city where black women head many of the families in neighborhoods most besieged by crime — requires an astute political strategy and a challenger’s bravado.
Bernstein had both. He also had one of the most outspoken African-American defense lawyers in Baltimore (Warren Brown) in his camp, who spoke candidly about the operations at the court house and their impact on crime. Bernstein raised a respectable amount of cash that helped get his name before voters. And Jessamy contributed to Bernstein’s increasing public profile with a series of political gaffes that played well in the media and undercut her own message.
As Bernstein gained momentum. Jessamy had to turn out her base of support. She didn’t — or couldn’t. African American voters who sat out the election either overestimated the power of incumbency or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for her — or him. That’s where the question of race and its impact on the election lingers for me.
Bernstein is indeed a smart and savvy lawyer. How he will be as an administrator is an open question. The state’s attorney’s office is poorly-equipped, under-staffed and under-paid, and too often, overwhelmed by the crush of daily business. Bernstein won’t be able to count on City Hall for any more money in these grim economic times to resolve some of its critical problems.
But his legal acumen, intelligence and affable personality should serve him well in setting a new tone, direction and work ethic at the city state’s attorney’s office. He will need to surround himself with deputies who understand the office’s problems, recognize its potential and possess the legal, personal and management skills to help him improve its performance.
City prosecutors can and should learn from Bernstein. Whether they will join him in retooling the office won’t be known until he moves into the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in January.
More important is whether the thousands of voters who stayed home on Primary Day will now support Bernstein and take a stand against the violent crime that has eroded city neighborhoods and destroyed Baltimore families. Those are the people Bernstein has to engage if he is going to make a difference in the city. He has to recognize their personal challenges and conflicts, especially when a son or daughter is caught up in crime.
Jessamy offered many explanations for her office’s underwhelming performance and felt that attacking the causes of crime was as much a part of her job as prosecuting criminals. But the State’s Attorney’s Office faltered during her years at the helm, as the conviction rate steadily decreased and more defendants decided to press their cases before Baltimore’s skeptical jurors.
It was time for new leadership, a sharper focus and a renewed sense of purpose. Baltimore voters, all 31,703 of them, chose Bernstein to provide it. The rest of the city now must get behind him.
Ann LoLordo, a former editor and writer at The Baltimore, often reported on criminal justice issues during her years there.