After decades, city treated to a battle for state's attorney

No clear front-runner as 2 challenge Jessamy

August 25, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Baltimore voters are being treated to a spectacle they haven't seen in 20 years: a battle for the job of the city's top prosecutor.

Not since 1982 has a Baltimore state's attorney had a challenger. And this year's candidates, who have repeatedly squared off, are providing enough political venom to make up for lost time.

After three months of campaigning, there's no clear front-runner among the candidates - embattled incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy, longtime lawyer Anton J.S. Keating and City Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil.

"It's a fascinating race because you can't figure out who's first or third," said Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who is following the race. "Each one has too many things going for and against them to say they're ahead or behind the other two."

A recent poll conducted by Annapolis-based Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications shows that 29 percent of voters favor Jessamy. About 27 percent of those polled preferred Stancil, and 26 percent preferred Keating.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points, which means that no candidate has a clear lead.

The candidates are aggressively vying for a position that many have called daunting and thankless. It entails heading an underfunded office of more than 200 lawyers with a mission that goes to the core of Baltimore's ills: keeping criminals off the streets.

The campaign has been marked by volatile candidate debates, a scrappy confrontation on a local radio show and hostile accusations.

But even if there were no rhetoric and fireworks, this year's state's attorney's contest would stand out in people's minds.

"The mere fact that there is a race is something to take notice of," Warnken said.

Voters will decide among the three Democratic candidates in the primary Sept. 10. There is no Republican candidate.

For Jessamy, 54, who has held the office for 7 1/2 years, the campaign has come down to defending her record, which has been held up to intense scrutiny - and sometimes ridicule - by her critics.

"I have the experience, the track record and a large number of accomplishments, no matter what anyone says," Jessamy said. "No, we're not perfect in the state's attorney's office, but I don't know anyone in government who is."

At times, her most hostile political adversary has been Mayor Martin O'Malley, a former city prosecutor who has belittled her and has harshly criticized her office.

The challengers

Keating was born in London and has practiced law in Baltimore for 35 years. He has said the state's attorney's office is a "losing team," and he is the one who can turn it around.

He said he is relying on his trial experience - which includes more than 100 murder cases - to gain the voters' confidence.

"I've been in the trenches for years and years," said Keating, 58, a former prosecutor and public defender. "I'm one of the best criminal lawyers in the state."

Stancil, who is a lawyer in private practice, is also critical of Jessamy, saying the state's attorney should leave office. Stancil points to what she calls her "vision" as her strength, saying that "no crime will go unpunished" if she is elected.

But Stancil, 39, has her own hurdle: lack of trial experience.

She says she's qualified to become state's attorney nonetheless.

"Experience isn't a relevant factor," Stancil said. "I was always ready now for what other people thought I should wait for."

Campaign funding

One way to gauge which candidate is emerging as the front runner is the amount of money each has raised. But that has been an unreliable mark for this campaign.

As of Aug. 13, the last filing date for campaign finance reports, Jessamy had raised $78,521, about $22,800 more than Keating had.

Stancil has not filed her report, saying the computer she is using, which belongs to her mother and treasurer, Dorothy Williams, crashed days before the deadline.

Stancil has hired pollitical consultant Julius Henson to work on her campaign.

The two were partially responsible for pushing another candidate, well-known city attorney Warren A. Brown, out of the race.

Henson called the news media with unflattering facts about Brown's private life before Brown had made his campaign official. Brown quickly withdrew and has since supported Keating.

Historic primary

The primary will also be noteworthy for a reason unrelated to the courtroom - the racial makeup of the candidates.

If elected, Keating would be the first white state's attorney in Baltimore since William A. Swisher was defeated in 1982. Jessamy and Stancil are black.

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