City state's attorney candidate understands crime

September 11, 2010|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Standing before television cameras and reporters on 26th Street on a steamy summer day, Gregg Bernstein displays a strong command of campaign skills in his first bid for elected office.

He was a late entry in the contest against Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who has held the job for 15 years. But he's got the art of the news conference down. The checklist: slick suit, media handlers and provocative statements.

He has called everyone there to blame Jessamy for one of the city's senseless murders, the high-profile killing of a young Johns Hopkins researcher, Stephen Pitcairn, allegedly at the hands of a career criminal.

"If the state's attorney had done her job … Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today," Bernstein said.

It's the kind of claim that has garnered significant attention as Tuesday's Democratic primary nears, both from fans and those who think he bends the truth to fit his needs.

Bernstein, 55, was a federal prosecutor for four years — from 1987 to 1991 — and a private practice lawyer for a quarter-century, yet he leads heavily with the prosecutor part when describing his qualifications. He frequently cites poor conviction rates for Jessamy's office, though he uses figures from a study that many consider flawed. And a recent attack ad against Jessamy, claiming she puts violent criminals back on the streets, said the information came from The Baltimore Sun, not mentioning that it was contained in an opinion piece written by a radio host.

Bernstein's public face stands in sharp contrast to Jessamy's, who as a prosecutor rarely speaks to the news media and almost never summons them.

The Bernstein who has appeared on the campaign trail is a polished professional who carefully calculates his words, projecting the exact image of the high-profile defense attorney he wanted to be.

But voters are just learning about how he got there, or who the person is behind the persona.

And even fewer know of his family skeletons that he reluctantly talks about: His father drank, a brother used drugs and his youngest son was recently convicted on a felony drug charge for dealing cocaine. There's also the uncomfortable fact that his former wife works as a prosecutor under Jessamy.

Bernstein is unfazed by the scrutiny. He's approaching the state's attorney's race like everything else in his life: something to be won.

"In Gregg's case, it was a big step from where he came from to go become a professional," remembers law school classmate Sanford Cardin. "There was something about it, it was very American Dreamish."

Lessons of childhood

Bernstein was born in Baltimore on July 9,1955, and raised in Pikesville's Sudbrook Park neighborhood. He's the oldest of four children, each three years apart in age.

His parents met at Hutzler's Department Store, where his mother sold shoes and his father managed merchandise.

From his mother, Bernstein inherited vigor and a taste for politics: She put him to work at a young age for Democratic candidates she supported. From his father, he got a love of reading — Faulkner in particular — and sports. His dad played basketball as a young man and tennis later, which Bernstein adopted in that order.

And from his religion, Judaism, Bernstein said he learned the importance of public service.

He attended public school, first Bedford Elementary, then Sudbrook Junior High, followed by Milford Mill High School, where he was the captain of the basketball team — class of '73 — a popular jock who had a long-term girlfriend.

He proudly ticks off a list of incongruous jobs, beginning in middle school mowing lawns and setting up summer carnivals, which he credits with giving him the "ability to relate and interact with people of all walks."

In the Bernstein home, "if you wanted spending money, if you wanted to buy things for yourself … you worked," Bernstein said. "I've been working pretty much since I was 13 years old."

And he's been on his own since he was 17.

His father lost his job — or quit, Bernstein can't remember — and packed up the family for a move to a new position in Peoria, Ill. Bernstein stayed behind to close up the house, he said, and then left for college at the University of Maryland.

"From the time I graduated from high school, I've been pretty much fending for myself," he said. "I paid my way through college, through law school. I've been completely self-sufficient since I was 17."

Bernstein's parents separated a few years after moving to Illinois, though they never divorced.

His mother took the younger kids west, driving until she ran out of road in Carmel, Calif. She still lives there.

His father, a heavy drinker, moved to his home state of New York. There, Bernstein said, his "alcohol issues" worsened. He died of cancer in 1990.

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