Hard road to higher office

Prosecutor: Patricia Jessamy's image problem could make a move to City Hall difficult.

June 01, 1999|By MAREGO ATHANS | MAREGO ATHANS,SUN STAFF

Patricia Jessamy's mouth has taken her a long way, from the Mississippi cotton fields to the job of Baltimore's chief law enforcement officer.

She started talking in sentences at 10 months old. "My mouth is going to make my living," she once told a teacher trying to hush her in class.

In recent months her mouth has gotten her into trouble. As suspects in violent crimes were being set free because of trial delays, Baltimore cried out for a crime-busting prosecutor. Instead, it got a state's attorney defending her office, complaining about lack of money, losing her cool.

"I guess I am an incompetent prosecutor," she snapped when questioned by a reporter.

One thing has become clear lately about Patricia C. Jessamy: She's not much of a politician. Supporters and critics agree that she hasn't learned the art of stepping up to the microphone, saying the right things and turning criticism into opportunity -- an odd deficiency for someone who wants to run for mayor.

In a city where crime is a preoccupation, Jessamy has until recently kept a surprisingly low profile. She doesn't cultivate the press as other politicians do, or rush to victims' hospital beds for the TV cameras. (In fact, she sometimes sabotages herself by speaking in unquotable bureaucratese.) She hasn't taken center stage by trying big cases herself, as some of her headline-grabbing counterparts have done. She doesn't sound so much like a lock-'em-up prosecutor as a social worker, discussing prevention and treatment with punishment.

The court crisis hasn't gone away. Last week, the Abell Foundation said it would fund a watchdog group to study the problems. Jessamy and other criminal-justice leaders -- under threat of losing state money -- are working on reforms.

Jessamy says she's committed to making Baltimore safer, but she's thinking that she can do more from City Hall than from the courthouse.

Getting there, though, might be a struggle. She has never run in a contested election, and it's unclear what her vision is. She hasn't raised much money. She's not part of a political machine.

Then there's the image problem.

"She's a very intelligent woman," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore City Democrat. "But people still have fresh visions of the way she handled the debacle. They need a different, more reassuring image before they start investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into her candidacy."

Much of the time, Jessamy comes across like someone's mother, with a bubbly personality, creamy voice and sugary Mississippi lilt. She hugs people at public events and can turn around a room with her humor and charm. But colleagues say there's steel in the magnolia. Born in the Mississippi Delta, she joined the nation's civil rights struggle as a child. She attended segregated black schools, picked cotton for $4 a day and put herself through law school as a single mother.

"It would do Baltimore a justice to have a mayor who can pick cotton and pull up corn and help dig sweet potatoes and pull up peanuts," says her mother, Beatrice Coats. "She knows what it's like to be poor and what it's like to be not-so-poor."

`She never shut up'

For a public official who says she draws her strength from communities, it was a low point in December when Jessamy stood before a roomful of Southwest Baltimore residents and police who accused her -- in front of TV cameras -- of dropping drug-related cases.

Jessamy argued that her office vigorously prosecutes such crimes, that many of the offenders -- instead of being let go -- had been assigned to community service and that in some instances the police had presented weak cases.

But her attitude infuriated the audience.

"She never shut up," says the Rev. Edward G. Robinson, president of the Southwestern Community Improvement Association. "She was very abrasive and defensive. She attacked us. The more we tried to articulate to her our concern for the lack of any substantial prosecution, the louder she yelled. People literally begged her, `Can we talk? Will you listen?' She just kept talking, talking, talking."

Jessamy acknowledges that she got rattled but says she was ambushed by the police that night. A police lieutenant, armed with files of recent drug arrests, asked her to comment on them on the spot. She refused. Had she known she was going into hostile territory, she says, she probably wouldn't have gone.

Lt. Russell Shea, who spoke that night, denied an intent to embarrass Jessamy and said he simply came to the meeting prepared. But he says a top police official told him that Jessamy would come out attacking and that he should "defend the agency."

"She got in my face," he says. "I've never had anyone be that aggressive who wasn't a suspect in a crime."

Jessamy says she felt cornered. "People think sometimes that because you're a politician, you're not human. I'm a human being. I get angry like regular people. You cut me, I bleed. If you're attacked, you fight back."

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