Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein got to work on his re-election campaign in a low-key way Saturday, knocking on the doors of likely voters in Northwest Baltimore and asking for their support.
It was one of the first campaign activities Bernstein has organized this year and while he confirmed last summer that he intended to run again, he has been reluctant to talk about the political side of his job. On each doorstep he made no big promises about the future but pointed to his record in office.
"I'm focused on the job," he said in an interview. "I don't spend time thinking about opponents."
Bernstein has attracted two opponents who announced their plans to run during a surge in violence in the city last. In the Democratic primary, he will face Marilyn J. Mosby, a former prosecutor in his office; defense attorney Russell A. Neverdon Sr. is running as an independent.
Bernstein ousted long-time incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy in 2010, but won the Democratic primary by fewer than 1,200 votes.
Since taking on the job, Bernstein has overhauled the organization of the prosecutor's office. The former federal prosecutor has created a unit to tackle major cases designed to dismantle violent criminal groups, as well as a team focused on sex crimes.
The result, Bernstein's campaign literature says, is rising conviction rates and the successful prosecutions of 200 people who rank as the city's worst criminals. If he wins another four years, Bernstein said, the aim will be to build on that base.
"It's really important to keep the foot on the gas," he said.
But he also faces the fresh challenge of having to defend his decisions in controversial cases, particularly those involving allegations of the unnecessary use of force by police officers.
Standing outside his home Saturday, Aaron Clark, 70, questioned Bernstein about the investigation into the 2011 shooting of Officer William H. Torbit Jr. by four colleagues outside the Select Lounge club.
The incident happened in the first few days of Bernstein's term, and he concluded that none of the city police officers had committed a crime. But Clark wanted to know why a grand jury did not weigh the case.
Bernstein answered that he did not present the case to a grand jury because he didn't anticipate bringing any criminal charges.
"We looked at it very, very carefully," Bernstein said. "I'm not saying that they acted appropriately."
"They couldn't have if they shot the man 30 times," Clark said. "A chimpanzee or something could tell you that doesn't make any kind of sense at all."
Mosby, too, has challenged Bernstein's record, questioning his prosecution of violent and sexual crimes.
Earlier this year, she testified in Annapolis on a bill that would change the rules in sex offense cases and make it easier for prosecutors to use previous allegations as evidence against suspected rapists at trial — a cause she took up after Bernstein's office lost four rape cases against a single defendant.
She has also pointed to findings in a consultants' report on the police department that a program to target violent criminals has become unwieldy and lost focus.
"At the end of the day we need to be focusing on these violent repeat offenders," Mosby said in an interview Saturday. She has pledged to restore order to the program.
Mosby said that she has also been campaigning in city neighborhoods and that she is finding support for her candidacy.
"We feel really good about the campaign," she said. "The message is really resonating. … It's time, it's really time for change."
Neverdon could not be reached for comment Saturday, but he has said he wants a similar focus on violent crime. He also has pledged to use the state's attorney's office as a platform to provide services to keep people out of trouble.
In the fundraising race, Bernstein is well ahead according to campaign finance reports. He had $340,000 on hand in January.
Neverdon reported having $2,000 on hand. Mosby had about $100,000, a sign, she said, that she is a serious challenger.
"A lot of people didn't think I was going to be able to raise any money, and I was able to do that," she said.