Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, under political attack throughout much of her tenure, clinched victory last night in a three-way Democratic primary race - the city's first battle for top prosecutor in 20 years.
With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Jessamy had a firm lead with 44 percent of the vote. Her challengers, City Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil and Baltimore lawyer Anton J.S. Keating, trailed with 33 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
Jessamy prevailed over her challengers in what had been a fiery campaign, replete with combative candidate debates, scrappy radio confrontations and hostile accusations. In the end, Jessamy, who has held the position for 7 1/2 years, swayed the confidence of voters who had heard a steady stream of criticism against her.
"I'm very happy and pleased to serve the citizens of Baltimore for four more years," Jessamy said last night amid cheers and jubilation at her campaign headquarters in the Northwood Shopping Center. "The numbers tell me that the citizens of Baltimore want someone with honesty and integrity. I'm the one they chose to send back as state's attorney."
"I am forever thankful," she added. "I will forever have integrity; I will forever be a public servant."
At the polls yesterday, voters voiced strong feelings about Jessamy. Some said she was ineffective in prosecuting violent offenders, while others said she has unfairly absorbed blame for the city's relentless crime problem.
"She's been criticized too much. She deserves a chance to continue in her job," said Carol Stachura, 59, a retired school teacher who lives in Canton. "She has a really difficult job. What she's been criticized for was beyond her control."
The office of the city's top prosecutor has attracted numerous political attacks in recent years, with Mayor Martin O'Malley - a former assistant state's attorney in the office - taking jabs at Jessamy's performance and blaming her staff for crime problems.
At times the mayor became so irked by the city's prosecutors and judges that he took unusual steps, such as forming a citizen's watchdog group in July that is designed to keep tabs on Baltimore courtrooms. O'Malley created the group after the accused shooter of a 10-year-old boy was set free on low bail, partly because city prosecutors didn't show up for a bail review hearing.
The political scrutiny has made the state's attorney's office difficult to run. But Jessamy has stood by her performance and said she has accomplished much in spite of the obstacles.
Throughout the three months of campaigning, Jessamy, 54, ardently defended her record and belittled her opponents' qualifications. She said she has helped reduce crime 31 percent since taking office and has improved prosecution of violent offenders.
Jessamy took a great deal of heat from her opponents over murder cases that they say her prosecutors have fumbled, and her unwillingness to explain those cases to the public.
South Baltimore resident Julie Helms, 57, said she voted for Jessamy because she trusts her and didn't know much about the other candidates. Helms said she is willing to overlook Jessamy's hostile political spats with Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"She's done a good job despite her controversy with the mayor," said Helms, an administrator with the Presbyterian Church. "I feel like a can trust her sense of justice."
Stancil and Keating have repeatedly said Jessamy does not deserve a third term in office.
Jessamy, a Mississippi native, was appointed in 1995 and ran unopposed in 1998. She has worked in the state's attorney's office for 17 years.
"She's focused on the community," said James Chestnut, 41, who lives in the Sandtown-Winchester section of the city. "She seems to care about people."
Jessamy said that she campaigned hard and that voters respected her approach.
"I didn't want to take anything for granted. I didn't want to underestimate my opponents," she said.
Stancil, 39, is a Baltimore native who represents the 3rd District in the City Council. She was an assistant state's attorney in District Court for two years and now has a private practice.
She has verbally attacked the state's attorney's office, saying her clients who face charges in Baltimore think they're a "joke" compared to charges in other jurisdictions like Baltimore County.
Keating, 59, a London-born lawyer who has practiced in Baltimore for 35 years, accused Jessamy of bungling numerous cases.
"If you're going to get in there and fight, you've got to be prepared to be knocked" down, Keating said last night after learning that vote totals heavily favored Jessamy.
If elected, he said, he would have fired a few dozen prosecutors and required lawyers to review cases for a few hours on Saturdays.
This was Keating's second bid for the office. He ran for state's attorney in 1978, losing to incumbent William A. Swisher.
Criticized by her opponents for a lack of trial experience, Stancil has countered by saying experience is not a relevant factor.
If elected, Stancil said, she would have explored sending violent criminals to out-of-state prisons to add to their punishment by separating them from their families.
The campaign was so close that that some usually vocal political players did not want to take sides. Neither the mayor nor Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police formally endorsed a candidate.
O'Malley, who has been a hostile political adversary of Jessamy's over the years, intimated late in the campaign that he supported Jessamy over the others, although he would not say who he favored.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which also has harshly criticized Jessamy, gave money to Keating and Stancil but declined to choose between the two.
There hasn't been a heated contest for the office since 1982, when Schmoke beat incumbent Swisher. Schmoke then ran unopposed, but he resigned to become mayor in 1987.
He appointed Stuart O. Simms, who later ran unopposed, then in 1995 left to become secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
Simms appointed Jessamy that year.
The job, which pays $115,000 a year, entails running an office of 204 lawyers on a $32 million budget.