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Bernstein holds narrow lead over Jessamy in city state's attorney race

With most of the city's votes tallied, challenger Gregg Bernstein appears to have edged out incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy in the race for Baltimore City state's attorney, her campaign acknowledged Wednesday morning, though Jessamy has not conceded the race.

"I just don't know how this happened,” said Jessamy’s spokeswoman  Marilyn Harris-Davis, questioning the integrity of Bernstein’s campaign, which Jessamy has said was made up of “lies” and misrepresentations about her record. Harris-Davis said Jessamy was home resting Wednesday after a long night and would make decisions about talking to media later today.

“We are not conceding,” Harris-Davis said.

Numbers released Wednesday afternoon from the Baltimore Board of Elections show that Bernstein won 49 percent of the primary votes cast at city polling places, with a count of 30,392, to Jessamy's 47 percent, with 29,097 — meaning just 1,295 votes separate them. A third Democratic candidate, Sheryl A. Lansey, received 2,252 votes.

That means Jessamy needs to make up the difference in absentee ballots, which will be counted starting Thursday morning.

Jessamy's campaign staff had said earlier that as many as 10,000 of Baltimore's primary votes could still be unaccounted for, claiming that memory cards from 27 machines in six districts had not been tallied.

But city Board of Elections Director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. said the figures sounded high to him. "We are going to get to 100 percent" of the votes cast at precincts, he said.

Jessamy's staff believed the memory cards representing between 6,000 and 10,000 came from the 40th state Senate district (three cards); Senate district 41 (five); district 43 (three); district 44 (four); district 45 (eight) and district 46 (four).

The narrow margin raises the significance of absentee ballots. Requests for absentee ballots came from more than 3,600 Baltimore Democrats, and 1,678 had been returned as of Tuesday, according to state officials.

Confusion erupted at the city board of elections headquarters at about 1 a.m. Wednesday as supporters of both candidates demanded to know why the results from four of the city's 290 precincts were not available. Supporters wondered if computer discs remained locked in voting locations, but a city elections official would not provide answers.

Though voter turnout was lower than normal, many at the polls said they came out solely to support Bernstein, who seemed to come out of nowhere to mount a powerful campaign against Jessamy. And Bernstein was confident as he joined supporters Tuesday night at JD's Smokehouse in Canton.

"I think we've tapped into something," he said to the crowd gathered at JD's Smokehouse in Canton, where he has a strong base of fans. "People all over the city are frustrated."

Over at Jessamy's party headquarters, she entered about 10 p.m. to cries of "Jessamy! Jessamy!"

"I feel good," said Jessamy, who's held the job as city's top prosecutor for the last 15 years. "Anything worth having is worth fighting for."

Their battle was the most contested, and in many ways the most divisive, race for state's attorney in nearly three decades.

The city's police commissioner took a stand against Jessamy during the campaign, highlighting the discord among the law enforcement agencies. And residents seemed to largely split their support along racial lines.

Jessamy, who is black, ran on a crime-fighting approach that focuses on prevention programs and offender treatment alongside legal action, which seemed to resonate with many black voters. Bernstein, a white criminal defense attorney, promised to "fight crime first" through prosecution, which some black city residents saw as code for "everyone gets prison time" — even minor offenders.

Thomas Faulkner, a 45-year-old electrician, said he voted for Jessamy because he likes her approach.

"It's not about locking all our black men up. It's about employment, education programs, apprenticeships and giving people opportunities," Faulkner said. "It's not about locking them up for something small like drinking and then they have a record for the rest of their lives."

Supporters of both candidates decried the racial undertones to the race, and blamed the opposition or the media for raising them. But legal analysts said it was a natural issue, given the city's history. In Baltimore, defendants and inmates are overwhelmingly black, which has led many to distrust police and the court system.

"We would be very naïve if we thought that race was not a relevant issue in elections, particularly in the criminal justice system," said Byron Warnken, an attorney and associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he hosted a debate between the two candidates this month.

"If there is anywhere in our society where race is germane, it is in the criminal justice system," he said.

The city's racial makeup worked heavily against Bernstein, Warnken said, though the first-time politician still managed to mount a powerful campaign.

Bernstein is relatively unknown outside legal circles, and he was a late entry to the race, yet he quickly raised 3 1/2 times as much money as Jessamy. She had to lend her campaign $100,000 to pay for advertising. (Financial information for Lansey was not available.)

Janice Schneider, a 53-year-old artist who lives in Northeast Baltimore, said she normally would vote for a woman, but she chose Bernstein over Jessamy. Schneider said Jessamy had been in office too long.

"It's time for a change," she said. "I believe that sometimes you need a fresh face to stir up the pot a little."

Both candidates said that prosecuting violent criminals was a priority. And both claimed they would make city streets safer — something they both have to say, said Anton J.S. Keating, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who ran against Jessamy in 2002.

That's the "only line to take" when campaigning, he said.

But as one York Road voter said Tuesday afternoon, "Where has [Bernstein] been? ... You can't just show up" at election time. Jessamy has been working for the city for decades, said the man, who declined to give his name.

Bernstein was a federal prosecutor for a few years between 1987 and 1991, though he's been a criminal defense attorney since then, often representing high-profile white-collar defendants. His public service has largely consisted of donating his time as an attorney to certain federal defendants when called upon.

Jessamy has worked for the Baltimore state's attorney's office since 1985, first as a prosecutor, then as a deputy state's attorney. She was appointed to the top prosecutor position in 1995, and won it via election in 1998.

At the Baltimore Rowing Club, the scene was optimistic and festive, with dozens of supporters gathered around the television singing the Temptations' "The Girl's Alright with Me."

When Jessamy appeared, the crowd went wild.

She had spent most of the day working polls throughout the city, aware that the final few hours could be critical. There were 46 polling locations listed on her public schedule, and she hit about 40 of them.

"It's been a very exciting day … very heartwarming," she said, as reports showed a close race.

"We don't know the totals yet," she said, adding that she's confident voters elected the right person for the job.

Bernstein had five stops on his schedule. He celebrated across the water Tuesday night in Canton, where he has strong support from residents. He appeared before supporters only briefly about 11 p.m., before heading home to wait out the results.

"Hopefully, we'll wake up [Tuesday] and [we'll] have a new state's attorney," he said.

Bernstein's campaign treasurer, Jerry Martin, who has known and worked with Bernstein for 20 years, was thrilled to see his colleague make a run for the state's attorney's office.

"He's a self-made guy; I don't know a whole lot of those," Martin said. "He's giving up a lot to do this. If all he wanted was to make money he'd stay where he was."

Criminal defense attorneys loudly endorsed Bernstein during the race, as did Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. He put a Bernstein campaign sign in his yard, publicly thumbing his nose at Jessamy, who reacted by calling for an investigation.

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker and Capital News Service reporter Richard Abdill contributed to this article.

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