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Final tally shows Bernstein’s lead razor thin

Challenger Gregg L. Bernstein holds a slim lead over incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy and has issued a statement that seems to declare victory, but the race for Baltimore City State’s Attorney looks like it will come down to absentee ballots.

Final figures released Wednesday afternoon by the city Board of Elections show Bernstein with 30,392 votes and Jessamy with 29,097 votes in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, with 100 percent of precincts reporting. That puts Bernstein 1,295 votes ahead. A third candidate, Sheryl A. Lansey, received 2,251 votes.

“We are pleased to see that the final results are consistent with the voting trends we observed all day [Tuesday], and I again thank all the volunteers who have devoted so much time and energy to helping our campaign,” said Bernstein’s statement.

Jessamy has not conceded the state’s attorney race.

“I haven’t heard any final results, and I know that the absentee ballots won’t be counted until [Thursday], and so until those are counted there won’t be any final results,” Marilyn Harris-Davis, Jessamy’s campaign spokeswoman, said shortly after the Bernstein statement was released.

Elections officials will begin counting absentee ballots Thursday morning. More than 3,600 Democrats in Baltimore applied for absentee ballots.

Jessamy’s camp has also questioned if anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 votes, as recorded on 27 voting tapes or cards from 12 polling places, had been counted, according to her office spokeswoman. But Harris-Davis tamped down those “rumors.”

“Honestly, I’m not really clear. I know that there were some missing documents from the election judges,” she said. “We are still investigating all of that and I would not want to say that that’s fact until we verify it. Those actually are the rumors. That is what we hear.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Armistead B.C. Jones Sr., the city elections board director, denied any irregularities and said his office was still making its way to “100 percent” of the votes cast.

“I understand there’s a lot of speculation,” he said, but “there are no instant results.”

As he spoke, Jones was overseeing the setting up of folding tables for absentee ballots; just a few minutes earlier, a mail carrier brought in a thick stack of them.

The slow pace of election returns frustrated candidates and their supporters throughout Tuesday. Polls closed at 8 p.m., with the first returns posted about 90 minutes later. Jessamy led in the early hours.

Just before 11 p.m., with the numbers still in her favor, Jessamy’s supporters were in a celebratory mood, and their candidate was on hand.  A crowd gathered behind her and cheered as she did a television interview at the Baltimore Rowing Club, headquarters for the night’s festivities. Music pounded out on the deck that overlooks the Patapsco River and the Baltimore skyline.

Bernstein, at JD’s Smokehouse in Canton, took the lead shortly after that and continued to climb. He went home well before midnight, while Jessamy stayed out later, long enough to receive a visit from former U.S. Rep. and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who called Jessamy a “personal friend” alongside whom he’s “fought a lot of battles.”

Voter turnout was especially low in Tuesday’s primary — only 13.6 percent of registered voters in the city cast their ballots by 7 p.m.

On Tuesday afternoon, Bernstein said he hoped the tepid turnout would inure to his benefit.

“I think that our voters are energized and enthused and voting with a purpose,” he said just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, as he stood outside a Southeast Baltimore senior center. “I don’t know that Mrs. Jessamy’s voters are the same.”

Jessamy, greeting friends outside a North Baltimore church earlier on election day, seemed surprised by the low turnout, which stood at just 8 percent as of 3 p.m.

“Oh my goodness,” she said. “That’s low, very low.”

The race between Bernstein and Jessamy has been the most closely watched primary in Baltimore, which has been troubled by high crime rates. The candidates have stood in stark contrast in many respects, from the physical to the philosophical.

Jessamy, the 15-year incumbent, touted her incarceration rate and her prevention and diversion programs. Bernstein, a former federal prosecutor who has spent the past 20 years in private practice, promised a higher conviction rate of the city’s most violent criminals by improving relations with the police department and even trying some cases himself.

Jessamy, who grew up during the civil rights movement in Mississippi before rising through the ranks of the state’s attorney’s office, had the support of the political establishment: Mfume and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, as well as state legislators from Baltimore, were loud in their support of the 62-year-old prosecutor. Jessamy’s immediate predecessors, including former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, also endorsed her re-election.

Bernstein, a Baltimore native who was considered a possible replacement for U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein before entering the city race earlier this summer, was the choice of many of the city’s most prominent lawyers, from former city Judge William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. to former U.S. Attorney and Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. They gave him a clear fundraising advantage over Jessamy, who lent her campaign $100,000 as Primary Day neared.

The police union also endorsed Bernstein, as did The Baltimore Sun and City Paper. On the other hand, a group of Baptist ministers in Baltimore announced their support for Jessamy on Monday.

Even their election-day campaign styles differed. Jessamy crisscrossed the city in a black Ford Grand Marquis, making dozens of 10- or 15-minute stops. Bernstein made far fewer stops in his SUV and was holding a Starbucks coffee as he chatted with voters in Southeast Baltimore, including a state’s attorney’s office employee. The political “neophyte” said it had been a long day but he had gotten a lot of thumbs-ups and car-horn honks.

In North Baltimore, a 67-year-old retired teacher and nurse leaving the First English Lutheran Church polling place said she voted for Bernstein because she has been “singularly unimpressed” with Jessamy’s office whenever she’s served jury duty.

“The cases we lose are appalling to me,” said the Guilford resident, who did not want to be identified but described herself as an “old liberal Democrat.” “We definitely need a change.”

But Jessamy seemed to have the clear support of Barbara Armstrong, who brought her 94-year-old mother to vote at that same church minutes earlier. The younger Armstrong called Jessamy the “lady of the hour,” and Jessamy leaned into Armstrong’s Jaguar to hug one of her oldest supporters.

And at the Tench Tilghman Elementary School polling place, Glenn Ross, a community activist, offered full-throated support for Jessamy and answered criticism of low conviction rates.

“They’re letting people go because police officers are not writing more accurate reports, arrest reports,” Ross said, adding that plea deals in exchange for information against other criminals are part of a “game” that is not widely understood.

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