Jessamy solicits public's opinions

Embattled state's attorney is seeking re-election

`A candidate under attack'

July 18, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

In anticipation of a heated election campaign, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is polling Baltimore voters about their perceptions of her office and some of the high-profile cases that have drawn the ire of her critics.

"We're in a very difficult situation with a candidate under attack," said Jessamy's campaign manager, Patrick Scott, who was alluding to criticisms leveled at the state's attorney's office by the media and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The state's attorney also faces electoral opposition for the first time. Jessamy, who has held the office for the past eight years, was appointed once and ran unopposed once. But this year, she is being challenged in the Sept. 10 primary by City Councilwoman Lisa J. Stancil and Anton J.S. Keating, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who has practiced in the city for 35 years.

When asked to answer complaints about her office, Jessamy has offered the hard-line mantra that she tries cases based on the law and not public opinion. But during the past few weeks, her pollsters reached as many as 600 voters, trying to gauge that same public opinion.

Jessamy declined to answer questions about how the poll was conducted, saying, "It's never in good form to disclose that type of information. I am in a campaign."

Scott said that the poll was his decision, and that he wanted to identify what the public perceives as Jessamy's weaknesses and strengths.

"You don't do a poll because you want to be swayed by public opinion. You want to find out what people are thinking," Scott said. "If you've got a problem, you want to find out what it's attributable to. I don't think anybody can deny this is a candidate under stress."

Scott said the results should be tabulated in about a week.

The subjects raised by the pollsters included evidence fumbles in the state's attorney's office, as well as Jessamy's decision to drop charges against a police officer in a corruption case, according to residents who were polled.

"They asked about problems in office, and asked me to rank how important they were," said Janet Levine, 50, who answered a telephone poll this month. "They said, `What if you understood Patricia Jessamy's reasoning for what she did? Would that effect how you would vote?'"

Jessamy would not disclose the content of the poll's questions but characterized them as helping her "craft a message to be as responsive as we can to citizens."

"I'm just trying to learn what's on citizens' minds and in their hearts," she said.

Since Jessamy has been state's attorney, the office has expanded its homicide unit, created a firearms investigation division, an electronic surveillance unit and a half-dozen community outreach initiatives.

But public image has been a struggle for the city's top prosecutor, as she has withstood public tongue lashings from the mayor and others for what they have called critical missteps in the handling of cases.

Last year, O'Malley publicly lambasted Jessamy over her decision not to prosecute police Officer Brian L. Sewell, who was accused of planting drug evidence. The case fell apart after key evidence was stolen from a police office.

Jessamy also took heat for initially opposing the release of Michael Austin, who was imprisoned for 27 years on a flimsy murder charge.

In January, she hired a spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, to handle public relations.

"Clearly, some of the issues that have been problems in the past have been perceived as problems only because the public wasn't aware of the legal nuances or what steps the office has taken," Burns said. "We have made tremendous progress in being perceived as an office that is transparent and filled with talented prosecutors."

But Stancil, who was a prosecutor in the mid-1990s, said she also conducted a poll in May and found that Jessamy's "negatives were very high."

"When people were asked if they had to vote today for her, the answer was overwhelmingly `no,'" Stancil said. "We're going to do whatever we can to let people know we agree with them."

Keating, the other opponent, said he believes that Jessamy isn't ready to deal with the public. His campaign has not done a public-opinion poll. "Pat is a fighter and feisty, but I think she feels like she's drowning," Keating said. "There's a bunker mentality in that office."

Jessamy said there's no figurative bunker in her office.

"We have a prudent record of accomplishment," she said. "We intend to put that out to the voters."

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