Prosecuting a campaign

Our view: In the closely watched contest for city state's attorney, voters will need all the facts before rendering a verdict next month

August 19, 2010

Even before the year began, Maryland's political prognosticators had dubbed 2010 as the year of the rematch in Maryland, with incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley destined to face former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a repeat of 2006. Lately, however, it's a city primary contest that is grabbing headlines and could prove the election to watch over the next several weeks.

Since 1995, Patricia C. Jessamy has served as Baltimore City state's attorney and has never been seriously challenged at the ballot box. Four years ago, she easily bested lawyer Stephan W. Fogleman in the primary and, like many officeholders in predominantly Democratic Baltimore, faced no opponent in November.

Defense attorney Gregg Bernstein is proving to be a more formidable obstacle to Mrs. Jessamy's re-election. Two months ago, he was a little-known former federal prosecutor. But increasing concern over the city's low conviction rates for violent crime and a controversial boost from Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who briefly erected a Bernstein campaign sign in his yard, have drawn considerable attention to the race.

But the most compelling evidence yet that the state's attorney race could prove considerably closer than Ms. Jessamy's customary landslides of the past came with the release of campaign finance reports showing Mr. Bernstein has received contributions totaling more than $215,000 in the short time he has been a candidate. That's roughly 30 times what Mr. Fogleman collected in the 2006 primary and more than four times the approximately $46,000 Mrs. Jessamy has received this year.

Dollar bills don't cast votes, of course, and while $215,000 may be impressive in the context of a state's attorney race, it's hardly the kind of sum that would allow a candidate's advertising to dominate the city. But it's significantly more than Mrs. Jessamy has raised in the last two elections and suggests that Mr. Bernstein's candidacy has significant support.

So far Mr. Bernstein has focused intensely on conviction rates to make his case that Mrs. Jessamy has been an ineffective prosecutor. But, as even he acknowledges, the criminal justice system is not controlled by the state's attorney. The actions of police, judges, witnesses and juries (not to mention the caseload, budget and other resources provided to the prosecutor's office) bear some of the blame for adverse outcomes as well.

Nor is it clear whether Mrs. Jessamy's conflicts with the police department and others amount to much in the eyes of voters. Mr. Fogleman ran on a similar theme — that the state's attorney failed to support the efforts of city police officers — to little effect in 2006. Maryland voters have traditionally liked a candidate who is "feisty," a word we used to describe Mrs. Jessamy in this newspaper's endorsement of her four years ago.

Still, voters deserve more than a few sound bites and gotchas this time around. Some of what's been heard so far — for example, whether Mrs. Jessamy likens city courtrooms to city public schools or that the police commissioner used to have a Bernstein sign — falls well short of the substantive facts the public needs to make an informed choice.

That the city could be safer is obvious. Last weekend's 13 shootings and two stabbings provide ample evidence of that. The question is, which of the two candidates for state's attorney would do the best job making the city's streets safer? On that subject, the jury will need to hear more evidence than what can be found on a yard sign before rendering its primary election day verdict on Sept. 14.

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