Bernstein crossed racial lines to win state's attorney position

Political newcomer Gregg Bernstein drew support across racial boundaries to unseat a longtime incumbent in this year's contentious — and close — primary election for Baltimore state's attorney, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of precinct-level data released this week.

Bernstein, a white defense lawyer who campaigned with a tough-on-crime message, earned most of the city's white vote, particularly in areas like Canton, where he had strong support. Results also show that he took a significant portion of the black vote — up to a third of it in some African-American neighborhoods — to defeat fellow Democrat Patricia C. Jessamy, a black woman who has been Baltimore's top prosecutor for 15 years.

In the 8th Ward, for example, which encompasses neighborhoods around Clifton Park, the population is 92 percent African-American. Bernstein won 33 percent of the vote there, compared with Jessamy's 62 percent.

The findings were reached by examining demographic information from the 2000 Census and precinct data released Tuesday afternoon. They confirm what most suspected after his win: Bernstein had broad backing, despite predictions that people would choose a candidate whose skin color matched their own.

The results show that "people are paying more attention than I thought" to city affairs, said Bryon Warnken, a lawyer who teaches at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Bernstein, 55, was relatively unknown just a few months ago. He quickly mounted an aggressive challenge for Jessamy's job, capitalizing on anger over fresh high-profile crimes allegedly committed by people who had long criminal histories but no significant prosecutions.

Bernstein's win illustrates how "crime is such an issue" that it crosses racial boundaries, Warnken said.

Baltimore's population is about two-thirds black, and all citywide elected officials, including the mayor, City Council president and comptroller, are black. Bernstein will be the city's first white state's attorney in nearly three decades, though Baltimore residents have defied color lines before.

Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, who is white, took about 75 percent of the city's vote in the 2006 U.S. Senate race against Michael Steele, the Republican who went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee. In 1999, Martin O'Malley, a white city councilman, beat two black candidates in the mayoral primary.

Jessamy won 170 of the city's 290 polling places, though Bernstein took more votes from the 120 precincts he won, including 27 that were predominantly African-American.

That helped him win the nomination for the state's attorney position by just 1,167 votes, according to official primary results updated Tuesday morning. With nearly 65,000 votes cast, Bernstein received 49 percent to Jessamy's 47 percent. A third Democratic candidate, Sheryl A. Lansey, took 2,477 votes, leading some to complain that she was a race spoiler.

Jessamy supporters have said that low voter turnout worked against her. Just 19.2 percent of registered voters turned out for the primary, with 21.5 percent overall participating when early voters are counted. And in some heavily black precincts, where some were counting on Jessamy votes, turnout was well below the citywide average, between 10 percent and 13 percent. At William Paca Elementary School at 200 N. Lakewood Ave., fewer than 7 percent of registered voters turned out, with just 19 total votes cast for state's attorney.

Bernstein tried to draw interest by taking his campaign to the streets. He held news conferences on a Baltimore sidewalk, blocks from the locations of recent murders, including that of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn, whose Charles Village stabbing drew wide sympathy. And he based his campaign on a promise to crack down on violent criminals, which appeared to resonate across economic and racial boundaries.

Jessamy, 62, has long favored treatment and intervention programs in conjunction with courtroom prosecution. But Bernstein said those are areas better suited to social workers. Prosecutors, he said, should focus on "fighting crime first."

"The voting results from the various precincts support what I said throughout the campaign, which is that issues involving public safety transcend race, gender, age and socio-economic status," Bernstein said in a statement.

"We visited neighborhoods all over Baltimore, and people everywhere told me the same thing — that they do not feel safe, and that they are ready for new leadership in the state's attorney's office to get Baltimore off the list of America's most dangerous cities."

He plans to transition into his new position after the November election. There is no Republican challenger.

Through campaign spokeswoman Marilyn Harris-Davis, Jessamy said she "believes that she made a difference in her tenure as state's attorney. She made the city safer and helped to reduce crime and changed many lives for the better."

In general, primary voting did track along racial lines, with black neighborhoods generally backing Jessamy over Bernstein. But the margins were smaller than many expected.

At the Collington Square Recreation Center in the northeastern part of the city, the precinct is 98 percent black, but Bernstein got 32 percent of the vote, and Jessamy received 65 percent. Conversely, at mostly white areas like the Hatton Senior Citizen Center polling site in Canton, Bernstein won overwhelmingly: That precinct is 94 percent white, and he took 93 percent of the votes.

There were some anomalies, however.

Jessamy won the vote in eight precincts that are mostly white, including two which use the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue as their polling places. One of those precincts is 79 percent white, according to census data, and it gave Jessamy 68 percent of the vote. The other, 52 percent white, gave 58 percent of the vote to Jessamy.

About 10 miles to the southwest, above Patterson Park, Bernstein took 74 percent of the vote in a region where 57 percent of the residents are black.

On the streets outside the polling precinct there, at Tench Tilghman Elementary School in the 600 block of N. Patterson Park Ave., there were few people of voting age outside on Wednesday afternoon, and many of those who were didn't participate in the primary.

"I was super busy," said Nakia Washington, a 31-year-old student and registered Democrat. She said she didn't know much about Bernstein, though she had followed Jessamy's career as one of the city's black female leaders.

A man was killed recently at the end of her block, she said, and a teenage girl shot at someone a street or two over. Washington didn't think a prosecutor could do anything to end that kind of crime. "It's up to the people," she said.

Mary McLean, 53, said she did vote in the primary at Tench Tilghman, though she supported Jessamy. She said she has an open mind, however, and will wait to see Bernstein's results before judging him.

"It's not about race," McLean said. It's about having "the best person to do the job."

Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Previous versions of this article misidentified the locations of Tench Tilghman and William Paca elementary schools. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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