Officially, the Democratic primary race for Baltimore state's attorney is between Patricia C. Jessamy and Gregg Bernstein.
A 15-year incumbent with a strong political base fighting a perception she's too timid to go after criminals versus a former federal prosecutor regarded as an unknown upstart who's trying to capitalize on a feeling that crime is out of control and nobody is stopping it.
That was before the city's police commissioner put a campaign sign on his front lawn: He's supporting Bernstein.
Now, the race seems to be Patricia C. Jessamy versus Frederick H. Bealefeld III.
Top prosecutor versus top cop.
Since last week, when the appointed police commissioner made his political feelings known, the name "Gregg Bernstein" has almost disappeared from the news accounts.
The story is now about Bealefeld.
He's not running for anything, he hasn't said anything, and it'll be Bernstein's name on the ballot next month. But by injecting himself into a political campaign, Bealefeld has single-handedly transformed the race into a referendum on how crime is fought in Baltimore.
Bealefeld wants a partner in the prosecutor's office to help reform a system that critics say keeps putting offenders back on the streets. But his lawn sign could end up forcing him to step down if Jessamy wins and working together becomes untenable.
But for now, intentionally or not, Bealefeld has drawn the debate away from Bernstein and drawn the spotlight to his troubled relationship with Jessamy, and by extension, her equally troubled relationships with the commissioner's predecessors.
And that could be a good thing for Jessamy's challenger.
"It's better for Bernstein if it's Bealefeld versus Jessamy than Bernstein versus Jessamy," said City Councilman Carl Stokes. "It'll take two more years before people know Bernstein's name. But if this race becomes a referendum on Jessamy, then Mrs. Jessamy has more to worry about."
On Tuesday, Jessamy held a news conference — not to talk about her record or to challenge her opponent, but to go after Bealefeld. She attacked his credibility and accused him of using his badge to inappropriately lobby one of her supporters. She's calling for an independent investigation.
Whether the popular police commissioner is right or wrong to take sides in an election in which he and the roughly 3,000 cops who work for him have a stake, his desire to shape the debate has largely been realized.
"He has ignited public interest that may not have existed," said A. Dwight Pettit, a prominent defense attorney who unsuccessfully ran for state's attorney in 1978 and believes it's improper for Bealefeld to take sides in the campaign.
"The public knows that crime is horrendous in Baltimore City and that they are suffering," Pettit said. "They are totally confused in terms of numbers — arrest numbers, homicide numbers, overall crime -— and whose responsibility it is, the Police Department, the prosecutors or both."
Prosecutors are necessary checks on cops — going after bad officers, ensuring arrests are proper and cases are investigated competently and thoroughly — but the two agencies also need to work closely to ensure justice is meted out and there's a consistent and effective strategy to fight crime.
The four past police commissioners have disagreed with Jessamy over policy and strategy, and have bickered over whose fault it is when bad guys escape justice. Some chiefs made their complaints behind closed doors. Others made them public. Bealefeld is using his clout as a popular police commissioner to influence votes at the ballot box.
In recent weeks, Stokes helped organize two vigils for victims of deadly robberies: for the Johns Hopkins researcher stabbed in Charles Village and a church caretaker shot in East Baltimore. At both events, people loudly complained about criminals who seem to repeatedly get arrested and are released only to get arrested again.
The dispute between Bealefeld and Jessamy, Stokes said, "is just not good because now families feel their loved ones are part of a political game. The nonsense that goes on between the police and the state's attorney is really detrimental to the citizens' health."
Stokes said the top cop and top prosecutor "are grown-up people. They should both sit down in a room and say, 'What do we need to do better?' "