Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is saying her primary opponent would "set us back 60 years" if elected, a claim her critics contend is stoking fears about whether challenger Gregg Bernstein's anti-crime policies would target black residents.
The Democratic contest pits Jessamy, an incumbent who fought for civil rights in the South, against a white lawyer promising to get tougher 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 last week 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."
The comment, which Jessamy also made at a debate in Canton, "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," said Worgs, who is black. "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 black 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."
"There've been too many African-American women in power, according to some people in the community," Conaway said, "and they're trying to replace all of the African-American women that are doing a great job."
Bernstein is generating questions because he is a political newcomer, said Larry S. Gibson, an attorney and political operative promoting Jessamy.
"We know so little about Mr. Bernstein, and the public has no way of knowing whether he believes any of the things that he's saying," Gibson said. "He may be soft on crime. Who knows?"
On his blog, Heber Brown III, a pastor who attended the ministers' meeting, wrote that Jessamy's message "resonates well within the American Afrikan community."
"Instead of addressing the root causes of crime in Baltimore as Jessamy recommends, Bernstein would be another arrow in the quiver of Martin O'Malley's 'lock 'em all up' strategy," Brown wrote.
In an interview, Brown said Bernstein has talked about fighting crime, and "no one disagrees with that." But he said Bernstein's lack of discussion of other options for addressing the root causes is troublesome. "You'll find nowhere on his website about understanding a broader picture as it relates to public safety in Baltimore," Brown said.
Asked by a reporter whether linking Bernstein to pre-civil rights Baltimore was appropriate, the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a civil rights activist and retired pastor, said he wasn't comfortable offering an assessment.
"Let me put it this way: I am fully supportive of Mrs. Jessamy, and any political arguments, I'm not going to get myself involved in it," Bascom said.
Brown, the defense attorney, said Jessamy's attacks are inconsistent. He said she touts high incarceration rates — 60 percent of those in state prisons are from Baltimore — but slams Bernstein as being in favor of mass incarcerations. She has also claimed that Bernstein is backed by the defense bar, but says he will encourage a "police state."
Brown said that Jessamy is employing "subliminal codes" that resonate in the black community. "What she's saying is, 'He's a white guy — don't vote for him.'"
Harris-Davis, the campaign spokeswoman, said Jessamy does not employ racial messages in her campaign themes.
The tone of the campaign first shifted when Bernstein began airing television commercial, referencing the 2002 killing of the seven Dawson family members in a fire set by a drug dealer. The ad featured a former employee of the state's attorney's office — a black woman — saying that Jessamy had failed the Dawson family (a contention her office has strongly denied).
A group of politicians and Jessamy supporters called a news conference to denounce the ad saying that it was disrespectful to the family. The NAACP threatened to protest and demonstrate if it was not taken off the air, and state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden said the surviving Dawson family members would be issuing a statement condemning the commercial.
The statement was never produced, and the NAACP never picketed: Two surviving Dawson relatives maintained in interviews that they supported the message of the commercial. Years earlier, they had made the same claims in a federal lawsuit filed against Jessamy and other city and state officials.
Still, McCarthy said, "since Bernstein's commercial hit the air, there's been a lot around this idea of a white candidate using African-Americans to express concerns about the black female state's attorney."
McCarthy said Bernstein has never indicated that he favors a blanket approach of locking everyone up, "but he has been less effective at communicating what that really means."
"In politics, perception rules," McCarthy said.