Race for top prosecutor has racial backdrop

Each side plays to base, analysts say

August 21, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

At a small gathering of local merchants at a restaurant on Greenmount Avenue, Patricia C. Jessamy was among friends who nodded in agreement as Baltimore's state's attorney spoke not only of locking up criminals, but of understanding "underlying factors" that lead to crime and of keeping police in check.

All but one of the dozen merchants at the meeting were black, as is Jessamy. When talk turned to her Democratic primary challenger, attorney Gregg Bernstein, who is white, the group agreed that he seems interested in "prosecuting everybody," even though he has never said those words.

"You know what that says to the black community?" said attorney Dana P. Moore, former head of the city's ethics board and a Jessamy supporter who lives in Charles Village. "The cops want to lock you up, and he wants to prosecute you."

As Jessamy and Bernstein wrangle over who should serve as top prosecutor in an all-too violent city, the debate at one level concerns conviction rates, management ability and successful trials. Below the surface, however, the discussion is infused with race, as is often the case in Baltimore, where six in 10 residents are black and the city's jail is packed with young black men locked up for drugs and other crimes.

While Jessamy prides herself on the number of offenders she has incarcerated — pointing out that Baltimore generates more prisoners than anyplace else in Maryland, which she says "qualifies me" as being tough on crime — she also touts violence-prevention programs and alternatives to jail time, as well as the role her office plays in keeping police in line by prosecuting corrupt and brutal cops.

It is an approach that appears to resonate among black voters, who still bristle at the city's zero-tolerance policing strategy of several years ago that led to thousands of arrests Jessamy thought were improper.

That message, however, can come across as somewhat lenient, particularly in majority white, gentrified neighborhoods where residents get rattled when violence reaches their blocks and get frustrated when offenders are found to have previous records while still on the streets.

Last summer, mostly white Mount Vernon residents booed Jessamy at a meeting about a serial rapist when she began her remarks with a favorite slogan that lists prevention and treatment ahead of law enforcement — symbolic, critics say, of misplaced priorities.

Bernstein has seized on this disconnect, charging that Jessamy has become an impediment to public safety because she does not aggressively pursue criminals. He has won the support of the city's popular white police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who recently placed a Bernstein sign on his front lawn, a provocative move that ignited fresh interest in the campaign.

By openly supporting her challenger, Bealefeld brought to the forefront the long antagonistic relationship between Jessamy and this police commissioner and his predecessors, reviving questions about whether timid prosecutors or incompetent police investigations are more to blame for shortcomings in the criminal justice system.

That Bealefeld himself is white also sharpened the racial dynamics of the contest.

For former mayor and prosecutor Kurt L. Schmoke, now dean of the Howard University Law School, the sign flap was a troubling indication that race might overshadow policy in the political contest. He noted black residents' historically conflicted views of police and perceived unfair treatment in the judicial system.

"Bernstein, from what I've heard, doesn't seem to appreciate how different the African-American community perceives the criminal justice system from the white community," Schmoke said. "By not modifying his comments in some respect, it has the tendency to look insensitive."

But Schmoke noted, "Regardless of color, black people and white people want to be safe. The bottom line is that everyone wants the same thing from the criminal justice system — efficient prosecutions, fairness in arrests and keeping the bad guys from innocent people."

Pointing fingers in anger

Bernstein, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney who is married to the mayor's chief political strategist on criminal justice issues, has quickly mounted the first serious challenge in years to Jessamy's 15-year tenure. Recent campaign finance reports show he has raised $217,000 to Jessamy's $46,000, but he may still lack name recognition.

Jessamy's supporters, as listed on her campaign Internet site, include a long roster of current and former city and state politicians, all African-American. Bernstein has the backing of prominent black defense attorney Warren A. Brown, but he is also drawing support from the city's predominantly white legal establishment, and in upper-class neighborhoods.

Both candidates are running in an election in which there are few contested races in Baltimore, and the only competitive contest had been a state Senate primary in mostly white South Baltimore.

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