Jessamy says challenger would take Baltimore back to 1950s

Comment underscores polarizing debate in prosecutor's race

September 09, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has been asserting that her primary opponent would "set us back 60 years" if elected, an assertion that may be resonating among some voters as challenger Gregg Bernstein tries to counter the perception that his policies would burden black communities.

The contest pits an incumbent who fought for civil rights in the South against a white challenger promising to get tough on crime. Jessamy has been promoting and defending her efforts to weave intervention and treatment into her office's traditional role of prosecuting criminals.

Such programs, she said, have helped drive down crime by 59 percent during her 15-year tenure. But Bernstein, a defense attorney, has said that Jessamy's efforts come at the expense of prosecuting repeat criminals as the city remains one of the most violent in the country.

"My opponent, he doesn't think a prosecutor's office should have anything to do with prevention, intervention and treatment," she said at a meeting of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which was posted on YouTube. "I don't know a prosecutor's office in the country that practices that. If he is elected, he would be taking us back 60 years."

A campaign spokeswoman denied that Jessamy selected that time frame because of its civil rights significance, saying she was referencing a "time when treatment was not employed."

"I think the comment speaks for itself," said spokeswoman Marilyn Harris-Davis.

In 1950, Baltimore's political power structure was all-white. Today, the city is led by a mayor who is a black woman, as are the elected comptroller and prosecutor. A focus on treatment did not arise for years — drug-treatment courts date to the late 1980s, and the war on drugs began in earnest earlier that decade.

Donn Worgs, a political science professor at Towson University, said Jessamy "wasn't necessarily talking about a period of segregation, but a time period with a different perspective on how to deal with social problems."

However, he said the debate over how best to handle crime in urban communities is perpetually "encoded and intertwined with perceptions on race."

"Was it code to try to hint that if we have a white prosecutor, then we're likely to go backwards in terms of possibilities of justice in the black community? Maybe," Worgs said. "I wouldn't say that she was definitely trying to invoke a racial theme into the race, but then again, you can't get away from it."

Warren Brown, a defense attorney and Bernstein supporter who is black, slammed the remark as "reprehensible."

"To reference the pain and suffering during that time is pathetic," Brown said. "She's pandering to animosities and hatred, and she's also giving the black community very little credit for having any intelligence. It's just a reflection that she understands the race is getting away from her."

Bernstein, a last-minute candidate, is mounting one of the most serious challenges Jessamy faced since taking office in 1995. He has frequently placed Jessamy on the defensive over her record, and has raised more money over the final weeks of the campaign, prompting Jessamy to lend herself $100,000 to keep pace.

While Bernstein has stressed that he wants to focus on those who escape punishment and commit more crimes, he has also been fighting the perception that he would seek mass incarceration and prosecution of black city residents. A "zero-tolerance" policing strategy implemented when Gov. Martin O'Malley was mayor infuriated many black leaders, who said city residents saw their lives damaged by heedless charges.

Bernstein has sought to clarify his position on arrests with radio spots featuring Brown, who says that Bernstein "knows that you can't lock everybody up."

Several veterans of Baltimore political campaigns had predicted that race would become a major focus of the contest. Anthony McCarthy, a radio host who is involved in politics, said the campaign has been the "perfect example of how polarizing race can be in our city."

"On the radio show and when I'm out, you can see that African-Americans have shifted into 'Protect Pat Jessamy' mode," McCarthy said. "It's clear to me that Jessamy's appeal to racial pride is working, and we've begun to see more energy generated in the black community on her behalf."

On recent radio shows, including McCarthy's and a debate on the Larry Young morning show on WOLB, caller after caller asserted that Jessamy was being challenged because of her race, and asked whether African-Americans should be concerned if Bernstein is elected.

Jessamy told one caller: "I'm hopeful that [Bernstein's candidacy] has nothing to do with race. I remain hopeful in that regard, and we'll see where the votes come out."

At the same event where Jessamy discussed the 1950s, Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway asked the ministers to "let your parishioners know what's happening. They're trying to steal a seat from us."

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