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Election results speak loudly

This week’s primary election might turn out to be transformational for Baltimore. It almost certainly is more important than many realize.

Those few who bothered to vote tried to take some control of their lives and their government.

Race was far less important in the outcome than many thought.

We voted for change.

We voted for action and energy and hope.

Many thought the race for Baltimore State’s Attorney would be decided along racial lines exclusively. It was not. In a city where 65-70 percent of the population is black, the white challenger, Gregg L. Bernstein, is leading, awaiting a final count that includes absentee ballots. Even if he does not win, he captured many black votes.

Violent crime’s long shadow

The incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy, made what some regarded as an appeal to race loyalty, suggesting that a Bernstein win would be a setback for African-Americans in the continuing struggle for justice and equality.

Perhaps, though, black voters have created enough political success to allow other issues to determine their votes.

After two high-profile murders underscored the city’s violent character, personal safety may have trumped the racial dynamic. Political scientists such as Donald Norris at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County say — surprise — that blacks vote the way whites do: They are driven by self-interest. At any given time, those self-interests may be racial considerations, economic ones or those having to with crime in the streets.

This election was a moment for all voters to get their hands on the criminal justice process to some extent. It’s a complicated system, as Jessamy argued, but change was something the voter could effect. Bernstein’s observation that change was worth trying after 15 years of Jessamy’s stewardship seems to have resonated with many voters.

Bernstein also seems to have steered around many of the concerns that he would be a totally uncompromising, zero-tolerance, law-and-order prosecutor. He insisted that the incumbent’s effort to target and convict repeat offenders was not working. And she seemed to have no intention of changing anything.

Jessamy’s record of conflict with the police department — she did battle with a succession of police commissioners — came into the equation when the current top cop, Frederick Bealefeld III, put a Bernstein campaign sign on his front lawn. Many thought Jessamy made a tactical error when she protested dramatically, asking for an investigation.

Bealefeld’s actions, tacitly supported by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, may have taken a big toll. Under his leadership, violent crime — murders, included, are down dramatically.

Changing of the guard

At the same time, voters had an opportunity to step away from the old way of looking at government in Annapolis. In Baltimore’s 46th legislative district, they chose newcomer Bill Ferguson over 27-year incumbent George W. Della Jr. The symbolism could not have been more stunning.

Ferguson argued that education in Baltimore had to be improved to put the city in a posture for success. Everything, he argued, begins with a public education system; Della ran on his estimable record of constituent service — taking credit, in a sense, for not being a leader. Voters said they wanted someone more assertive.

Ferguson’s dramatic arrival on the political scene should highlight the new cadre of young educators now assuming important positions in the Baltimore school system.

They’re all part of the Teach For America corps, which has sent hundreds of teachers into the city, some of whom have stayed on, married each other, become school principals — and promised themselves to transform the schools into places they would send their own children. It’s hard to imagine more fundamental, nearly revolutionary, institutional change.

Many of them, it appears, have responded to the leadership of schools CEO Andres Alonso, under whose leadership scores have gone up on the achievement tests.

Bernstein and Ferguson have much to learn about functioning well in complex organizations — the 200-lawyer states attorney’s office and the General Assembly of Maryland.

Both should be appreciated, though, for radical risk-taking. Few would have given either much chance of success three months ago. Succeed they did, apparently, and both have an opportunity to improve the quality of life.

Jessamy and Della made important contributions over many years and should be honored for their service. Change, though, can be a tonic.

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.

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