Four years in, Bernstein in primary fight for re-election with Mosby

State's attorney points to improved operation; challenger says he's lost his focus

  • Marilyn Mosby who is running for Baltimore City State's Attorney, listens to other candidates after she spoke to an audience at a political forum at Fort Worthington Elementary School Recreation Center on Hoffman St.
Marilyn Mosby who is running for Baltimore City State's… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
June 13, 2014|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Four years ago, Baltimore defense attorney Gregg L. Bernstein emerged from a private practice to run an aggressive campaign targeting a longtime chief prosecutor who Bernstein said had grown complacent.

Now, as he makes his first re-election bid for Baltimore state's attorney, Bernstein is the one facing pointed attacks in the Democratic primary campaign — this time from a former assistant who says his leadership has already failed.

Marilyn J. Mosby, a politically connected insurance company attorney, has seized on the city's persistently high homicide rate and pointed to prominent crimes to criticize Bernstein's approach to the job. The incumbent, meanwhile, has run an understated campaign that emphasizes changes he has made to the office.

At stake is one of Maryland's highest-profile law enforcement jobs and one frequently at the center of Baltimore's continuing struggle with crime. Both candidates agree on the need to rid the streets of violent offenders, but they differ on how to do it.

Bernstein believes in lengthy, federal-style investigations that result in the arrests of dozens of suspected gang members with the intention of weakening the criminal organizations on the streets. Mosby says she would devote more attention to convicting Baltimore's most dangerous felons.

Those approaches draw on the candidates' sharply different backgrounds, with Mosby and Bernstein displaying contrasting personal styles as they campaign.

Bernstein, 58, passed the bar when Mosby was a young child. After time as a federal prosecutor, he founded his own law practice, then rose to partner in a Washington firm. Despite his electoral success in 2010, Bernstein says he prefers to focus on the lawyerly aspects of the job.

"I'd never run for anything before, not even student council president," he said. "Politics is not something that is in my blood."

Bernstein has played his re-election campaign carefully, raising large amounts of money, lining up endorsements and pointing to results of his time in office but refusing to tackle Mosby's criticism head on or to compare himself to her.

The 34-year-old Mosby is the daughter of police officers and wife of City Councilman Nick Mosby. She couples a police officer's love of telling stories from the beat with a belief in the importance of civil rights.

"The criminal justice system is probably the biggest problem facing African-Americans today," Mosby told a community group in Druid Heights this week.

But Mosby does not want to confuse that concern with a softness on violent criminals. She has hammered Bernstein when people have been charged with murder shortly after walking out of court, and criticized him over repeated acquittals of a defendant charged in a series of rapes.

"He's been ineffective in targeting these individuals," Mosby said.

After law school at Boston College, Mosby passed the Maryland bar in 2006 and started as a city prosecutor. She quickly moved up to handling more serious cases. She said she took about half a dozen felony cases to trial, as well as about 40 misdemeanors, before leaving the office in late 2011.

She was not involved in a rape or a murder case as a prosecutor.

Catherine Flynn, a defense attorney who faced Mosby at trial, said that though Mosby performed well enough in court, she is not ready to lead the entire 400-person office.

"You want someone who knows what they're talking about," said Flynn, who supports Bernstein's re-election.

But veteran Baltimore attorney William H. Murphy Jr. said young state's attorneys have been successful before and that Mosby could turn her youth to her advantage.

Murphy previously supported Bernstein but faulted him for his aversion to politics.

"This is a political job by definition, and you have to answer to the public," Murphy said after endorsing Mosby at a news conference.

Mosby brushed aside questions about her qualifications, arguing that Bernstein had little experience in front of city juries when he was elected. She said her broader record shows a pattern of taking tough stances against criminals with violent pasts, even when they faced misdemeanor charges.

"You need to look at the individuals," she said.

If she was running the office, Mosby said, she would implement her personal approach. In response to a consultant's investigation into the Police Department that found confusion over whether police or prosecutors had responsibility for tracking violent offenders, she has pledged to make a target list soon after taking office.

Bernstein said the report was out of date by the time it was published and that the problems have been fixed.

Mosby used the example of a man charged last year in the killing of a 1-year-old. Cornell Harvey had been acquitted in another murder case four months before the killing, and Mosby thinks prosecutors could have done more to keep tabs on him. Harvey has pleaded not guilty.

"If you so much as jaywalk I'm going to bring you down," she said.

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