As Jessamy exits and Bernstein enters

I can't help it, I'm a political rubbernecker. Although there was plenty of electoral action here, I've been watching aghast but unable to avert my eyes from the Republican primary election train wreck next door in Delaware.

Surely you, too, have followed the story of the tea party princess who slew the evil establishment dude to become the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate. Christine O'Donnell, a red-jacketed, bespectacled Sarah Palin wannabe, trounced Rep. Mike Castle, a reliable moderate in what used to be a reliably moderate state, in what surely must be a new electoral low: a campaign that apparently revolved around whether Castle needed to put on, as she so daintily phrased it, his man-pants.

(What is it, by the way, with these lady pols who seem obsessed with their opponents' boy parts — whether it's Palin looking for Obama's cojones and now O'Donnell hitting Castle below the belt? Just saying.)

I guess I'm just grateful to be watching from afar. We had our own hard-fought primary elections here in Maryland, and yet, no one went potty-mouth on us. Or maybe I speak too soon, with the general election cage fight for governor between Martin O'Malley and Robert Ehrlich still to come.

For the moment, though, let us now praise the just-concluded state's attorney race.

If nothing else, it was blessedly brief, as the Democratic primary victor Gregg Bernstein reminded everyone on Friday: In the 83 days since he entered the race, he went from being largely unknown beyond the legal community to toppling the 15-year incumbent with substantial establishment support, Patricia C. Jessamy.

At a time when electoral politics tend to sink into the personal, the race played out mostly on an issues level. Oh, there were skirmishes — over whether Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld should have so publicly chosen sides, over the inevitable racial overtones that shadow all talk of crime in a majority-black city.

But mostly, the important issue of crime and punishment got the airing it deserves. Not that the discussion went particularly deep — it's still an election, after all, in which time is measured in 30-second commercial buys and the occasional debate — but It wasn't all talk. There was an actual opportunity to do something about it, or at least cast a vote on who would get to play such a critical role in the criminal justice system.

Which made it disappointing, then, that turnout was so low for a race that people seemed passionate about. Too bad for those who sat home on Tuesday: Don't come griping to the rest of us when you have some issue with the new state's attorney; you blew your chance at casting a meaningful vote.

On Friday, when Jessamy conceded and Bernstein accepted the office that, in the absence of a general election opponent, he will take in January, I felt I had a glimpse of a true transition of power, and an all-too-rare case of electoral civility. It's too bad more campaigns can't end with this way: the loser exiting with dignity and the winner entering with grace.

Jessamy wisely called it quits after several days of questioning whether all the votes had been tallied. I don't begrudge her this; it's not being a sore loser to want to make sure the reported outcome matches the true will of the voters.

Plus, the elections board doesn't always inspire my full confidence. I never quite understand why it's so hard or takes so long to answer this question: How many people voted and for whom? And, with record-low turnout, that little man inside the big computer is still counting into the next day?

In any event, Jessamy conceded and made a point of looking forward rather than backward. Through there were tears in her eyes, she didn't revisit the campaign or continue to prosecute her case for re-election, but spoke enthusiastically about volunteering for an anti-violence initiative to prevent kids from turning into the cold-blooded killers who pass through her office. It made me think she is sincere about attacking the root of the crime problem, and not just the result.

There was something a little less defensive, or wary, about Jessamy on Friday. Maybe it's just the relief of not having to campaign any more, but she seemed to take the defeat without being defeated by it.

And then it was Bernstein's turn, to call supporters and the news media back to the murder site that he used to make a point and announce his candidacy, this time newly surrounded by the trappings of office. No one will be getting a ticket today, a police officer assured supporters worried about where they had parked.

It'll take a while, of course, to get a true measure of this relative newcomer to public life. Not surprisingly for a successful lawyer, he's quite the smooth and convincing speaker, promising big changes to the office even as he tipped his hat to its previous occupant. You can bet that if he makes good on his promise to try some cases himself, there will be an audience.

I had to chuckle a bit when Bernstein twice started to make points by saying that people thought he was naive — to even run for state's attorney, for example. It strikes me as pretty self-aware, actually, to say that someone thinks you're naive.

Something tells me Bernstein knows exactly where he's going before he steps foot in any direction.

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