Lansey doesn't mind 'spoiler' label in state's attorney race

She may well go down as a footnote in Baltimore politics. But this week, the note that will include the name of Sheryl Lansey grew a lot longer.

In the Democratic contest for Baltimore state's attorney, Patricia C. Jessamy, the 15-year incumbent, is hoping for a miracle or glitch that would uncover the roughly 1,400 votes she needs to surpass the apparent primary winner, challenger Gregg Bernstein.

Far behind is Lansey, a little-known lawyer and former teacher who quietly entered the contest at the last minute and wound up with 2,361 votes. If those votes had gone to Jessamy, the veteran politician would be getting ready for the general election instead of facing a probable defeat.

So is Lansey a spoiler?

"My answer to that is 'I've been called worse,' " she said Thursday.

Lansey, 63, said she ran for the office because she believes the Baltimore criminal justice system is "kind of broken," and thought her 10 years as a District Court administrator equipped her to make improvements. Her campaign slogan, printed on the blue brochure summarizing her experience and qualifications, is "The system CAN work again."

A former elementary school teacher, Lansey received her law degree from the University of Maryland and points to her background in criminal and civil law as part of her qualifications.

But throughout the summer, Lansey said she also had to fight off suggestions — she declined to say from whom — that she drop out of the race. Requests came from those worried that she might siphon votes from Jessamy or Bernstein and weaken their chances.

Those worries may have been justified.

"It was not my intention to take anything away from anybody," Lansey said as she sipped coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts on West 41st Street near her house. "My intention was to win the race."

Lansey said neither Bernstein's nor Jessamy's campaigns asked her to leave.

But she said that some Jessamy supporters suggested that if she would drop out, they would help her in a future run for City Council. Lansey said she had no interest in that position, and rejected the idea.

Others came, offering her nothing but asking her to give up nonetheless. She shrugged them off, too.

"These folks just say — get out, and see ya!" Lansey said, laughing.

At least one prominent figure has questioned Lansey's motives.

Kurt L. Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor and state's attorney, suggested in a newspaper article that the campaign of Bernstein, who is white, enlisted Lansey as a candidate to divide the African-American vote. Both women are black. Schmoke supported Jessamy.

"At the beginning of the campaign what I saw was a white male challenger and then, oops, the last day of filing, they find a black woman," Schmoke was quoted as saying in the Gazette newspapers.

The Bernstein campaign did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

But Lansey found that claim laughable, and said she decided on her own to enter the contest, making up her mind weeks before the filing deadline.

"If somebody was paying me, I never got the check," she said. "I could have used the money for the campaign."

As Bernstein and Jessamy watch absentee ballot results add up, Lansey does not favor either candidate. She doesn't see a big difference between them.

To the extent that she took votes away from either of the other candidates, Lansey said, she thinks most of the people who voted for her would have otherwise voted for Bernstein.

"I've heard so many people saying, 'We're glad you're in the race, because we gotta get her [Jessamy] out,' " she said.

By one metric, Lansey far outdistanced her better-known rivals. She said she raised about $400 for the race, which means she spent about 17 cents per vote. Bernstein and Jessamy spent roughly $5 for every vote, and possibly much more, according to a review of the most recently available campaign finance reports.

"That's pretty good, isn't it?" Lansey asked.

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