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Commentary: In search of a city prosecutor

“Revolving door…Blame Game…15 years…”

“Liar…Liar…Liar…”

Here is a digest of the critically important race for Baltimore City State’s Attorney:

“Revolving door” is the mantra of Gregg Bernstein, the challenger. “Liar” is the response of the incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy.

Both candidates, apparently, were in candidate class when the message was “Stay on message. And keep it simple.”

The realistic subtext? No one really listens to the substantive argument — though it should be clear in this race. The argument is obvious: We can’t go on like this. We don’t have to go on like this.

It is probably true, nonetheless, that no one can sort out the differing calculations on conviction rates — abysmally low, says Bernstein, exemplary says Jessamy,

Other issues are similarly obscure — telling, perhaps, but less important than the overall campaign theme.

The incumbent says she is “the queen” of technology in her department. Why then, asks Bernstein, don’t her 200 lawyers have voice mail?

Bernstein has taken on a determined, 15-year incumbent who seems to have been waiting for an opportunity to fight hard for her office. She’s had little to no opposition before.

“I’m tough. I’m smart. I’m not backing down,” she says. Her record is respectable: the number of murders is down by more than 100 per year during her tenure.

Bernstein’s says things must get better and could be with a more aggressive, organized and strategic approach to violent crime.

Rhetoric vs. reality

His overall campaign tone, though, has been muted. He can’t afford to seem disrespectful to a black woman in a city where black women constitute a majority of the electorate.

During a debate on WYPR’s Dan Rodricks show, Bernstein seemed determined to speak calmly even as Jessamy called him a liar and chuckled at some of his responses.

A successful defense lawyer in the federal courts, he hasn’t done much lawyering in the Maryland circuit courts where state’s attorneys practice, she charged.

Neither has she, he responded, arguing that the chief prosecutor should be in court at least occasionally to show leadership and engagement.

And so on.

The backdrop of the campaign is more important than the tone.

We are talking about Baltimore, still one of the most violent cities in America even though murder and violent crime are down — significantly down — based on the numbers.

But it is safe to say the numbers are obliterated by the unremitting image of killing streets — an image having little to do with race, by the way.

As the campaign started peaking toward the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, a Johns Hopkins University researcher (white) was stabbed to death near his home in Charles Village. A church maintenance man (black) was killed during what appears to have been a robbery. There were six other murders in the space of a week.

There is a strong feeling that Jessamy will win this race. She has that base of black women in a majority black city. Bernstein says he expects people to vote their self-interest and not put race above public safety.

Politics at all levels

Perhaps there is no better testimony of how “political” things can get than the decision by Gov. Martin O’Malley to throw his support behind Jessamy in this primary.

Some years ago, he famously urged her to get off her backside and do her job. In fact, he made some of his reputation as a tough-on-crime mayor.

But now, facing a situation in which support from black voters will be critical to his expected general election confrontation with the former Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., O’Malley finds Jessamy worthy of his support.

The collateral issues of politics go further. This year’s state’s attorney race could have significance next year when Baltimore voters will select a mayor.

When city Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III put a Bernstein campaign sign in his front lawn, next year occurred to some observers. He almost certainly would not have done this without finding out how his boss, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, might react.

As Jessamy cried foul, the mayor seemed to back her police chief. Also, it should be noted that the mayor’s top criminal justice aide, Sheryl Goldstein, has worked closely with Bealefeld and is now on leave from her city job to work in the campaign of her husband, Gregg Bernstein.

For some time, Patricia Jessamy has been regarded as a potential candidate for mayor. If she has not left cracks in her image with the “liar” tirade — if indeed she emerges from this campaign as smart and strong — she could be a formidable opponent for Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

Meanwhile, the murderous beat goes on.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.