Mosby cut into Bernstein's support in white neighborhoods, data suggest

Incumbent lost support in southern, southwestern and northern districts

(Kim Hairston / Baltimore…)
July 12, 2014|By Luke Broadwater and Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

One popular theory of lawyer Marilyn Mosby's upset win over incumbent State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein was that race played a deciding role in the election, helping a political newcomer oust a white prosecutor in a majority-black city.

But Baltimore residents voted less along racial lines than they did four years ago when Bernstein knocked off veteran top city prosecutor Patricia Jessamy with overwhelming support in white neighborhoods, a Baltimore Sun analysis shows.

An analysis of census data and precinct-by-precinct election results shows that Bernstein's support eroded in South, Southeast and North Baltimore — which contain the heavy-voting, majority-white neighborhoods of Federal Hill, Canton and Roland Park, respectively. Despite an election with overall higher turnout than in 2010, Bernstein received fewer total votes than four years ago. In fact, the only parts of the city where Bernstein gained votes were in the city's eastern and western police districts, where a majority of residents are black.

"My campaign made the conscious decision to contest every vote," Mosby said in an email. "We spoke to every voter we could no matter where they were and no matter their background or demographic."

Mosby pointed to two Canton precincts as an example. The Patterson Park community was infuriated before the 2010 election over the brutal beating and eventual death of Zach Sowers, 28, and the belief that his attackers got off with light sentences.

In 2010, Bernstein won 87 percent of the vote at St. Brigid's Parish Center and 93 percent at the Hatton Senior Citizens Center in Canton.

This year, leadership in the area again backed Bernstein, but Mosby's campaign chipped away at his dominance. Bernstein carried 77 percent and 80 percent of the vote in those precincts this time.

"That represents double digit [percentage point] decreases in both cases," Mosby said. "When you look at the numbers across the city, this scenario happened over and over again regardless of the demographic makeup of the precinct."

Mosby also benefited from early voting, during which her supporters turned out in much larger numbers than Bernstein's. And she wrested central Baltimore — where her home in Reservoir Hill is located — from Bernstein, who had won the district four years ago.

Mosby has won praise for running an efficient campaign that made the most of her limited funds despite a 3-1 fundraising advantage for Bernstein. Analysts have pointed to her support among high-profile African-American attorneys, the backing of a majority of the City Council and former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, an alliance with noted fundraiser Colleen Martin-Lauer, and publicity from holding anti-crime walks as key reasons for her victory.

Some have also argued that race was a key factor with prominent African-Americans rallying around Mosby. Lawyer Warren A. Brown, a Bernstein supporter, has said leaders like Mfume and political strategist Larry Gibson, who helped Mosby campaign, were "flexing" their muscles in supporting Mosby.

Gibson said he didn't notice anyone openly stating that they were voting along racial lines.

"I don't know what's in people's hearts and minds, but race was not an overt part of the campaign on either side," Gibson said. "We're getting somewhat beyond that."

There was another issue at play, some said: Bernstein's handling of alleged cases of police brutality.

While Jessamy was dogged by criticism over the Sowers case and the murder of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn while walking home to his Charles Village apartment, Bernstein faced questions about the in-custody death of Tyrone West. West's family raised the issue at countless community meetings all across the city.

Mosby, too, criticized Bernstein's handling of the case, in which the officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing. While Mosby was silent on whether she would have reached the same conclusion, she argued that Bernstein could have been more transparent.

Johns Hopkins University professor Lester Spence said both black and white voters are concerned about high crime rates, which Mosby made central to her campaign, as Bernstein did in 2010. But Spence said black voters tend to be more aware of acts of violence carried out by the police.

Spence said African-Americans' worries about the conduct of officers can help propel the state's attorney election up the list of voters' concerns.

"It becomes a race that's far more important than any other race that's on the ticket," he said.

Mosby said she believes voters cast their ballots less on race and more because they viewed Bernstein as having lost focus on violent crime. She consistently stressed the city's high crime rate as a reason new leadership is needed in the prosecutor's office.

This election "was no more about race than 2010 was, where large numbers of both black and white residents of Baltimore voted for change and elected Mr. Bernstein," Mosby said. "In 2014, again, the citizens of Baltimore voted for change."

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