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Commentary: Race, history and public safety

Will history be the winner in this year’s race for Baltimore State’s Attorney?

I am talking about the historic suspicion of the police in the city’s black community. Does the current prosecutor’s war with a succession of police commissioners protect her from those who find her performance wanting?

I am talking about the history of white oppression in this country. It hardly needs further documenting. Equal justice was denied for centuries. Won’t it be necessary to keep blacks in office for many years simply to balance the scales — to allow black officials the power to decide how the law should be enforced?

I am talking about law-and-order campaigns featuring police cars with whirling, disorienting lights on the roofs of cruisers, of black men handcuffed and frog-marched to jail in the thousands. Were white office holders responsible for laws and policies that keep so many black men pinioned in the criminal justice system?

If images of this history alone govern the race between incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy, and challenger Gregg Bernstein, we may as well not go to the polls.

But will history lie more heavily on the hearts and minds of black voters than their own personal safety?

Change for its own sake?

Reasonably well-informed speculation holds that the outcome of this race will be determined by a neatly divided city: blacks for Jessamy, who is black, and whites for Bernstein, her white opponent in the Democratic primary. A cynical colleague of mine from another county says Baltimore doesn‘t have elections, it has a census.

In other words, he suggests, race loyalty governs — particularly among black voters, as if they have but one concern: making sure blacks remain in high office.

But is that true, regardless of a feeling that Baltimoreans, black and white, are helplessly in thrall to criminals and that something in the current formula needs to change?

This is not at all to say that the incumbent has nothing to recommend her after 15 years. She has fought witness intimidation. Murders and violence are statistically less pervasive in the city. And she has a good idea about turning violence into virtue: If kids grow up with no sense of obligation to the community, the streets will be their church.

But what she must be admired for suggesting will take time — and a city in peril doesn’t have time.

There is a feeling among some black voters — who knows how widespread — that Jessamy has been in office too long. Statistics cited by her show an easing of violent behavior in this city, but crime-wary citizens may feel as endangered as ever.

Sometimes change for its own sake makes sense — if the alternative offers enough promise to make it worth a shot.

High-decibel campaigning

The “time for her to go” speculation comes with a critique of her re-election strategy, including her full-throated denunciation of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who put a Bernstein campaign sign in his front yard. (He quickly took it down.)

The decibel level of Jessamy’s response gave the appearance of a horse race to what had seemed a walk in the park for an entrenched incumbent.

And there was at least one bit of evidence that history is not always the determining consideration. The black mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, stood by her white police commissioner. She surely must have known what he was going to do before he did it.

Now comes Gregg Bernstein with a barrage of commercials designed to show that Jessamy has failed to use tools that might have kept truly bad actors off the streets. He will be accused of fear-mongering — but the fear is there.

Whites, too, of course, have the burden of history — and the political assumptions of today.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was very critical of Jessamy’s performance when he was mayor, now endorses her. Effective or not, she has a strong base of support. Now, hoping to avoid alienating voters he needs in his re-election effort, he backs her.

The rest of us must decide who might be the city’s better hope.

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