In Baltimore County, conventional wisdom has long been that voters wanted a tough-as-nails state’s attorney to, if possible, stand astride the city-county boundary like a Colossus and warn criminals that they aren’t welcome in the suburbs — and that murderers would be put to death. For several decades, this was the role filled by Sandra A. O’Connor, who earned a reputation for seeking the death penalty more often than her counterparts in any jurisdiction in Maryland. It continued to be the philosophy exhibited by her successor Scott D. Shellenberger, who started his career as a law clerk for Ms. O’Connor and took over the state’s attorney role in 2006. Since then, he has served as a leading pro-death penalty voice in a state where lawmakers chose to discontinue the option of putting criminals to death nearly a decade ago. And so it has been a given in political circles that toughness mattered even as concerns over mass incarceration and racial bias in the criminal justice system mounted in the city and beyond.
But those days appear to be over.
While Mr. Shellenberger was again chosen as the Democratic nominee for the post in this year’s primary election, it was a surprisingly tight race. Opponent Robbie Leonard, whose resume includes a stint as a Baltimore City public defender, had a remarkably strong showing, running on a campaign of support for Black Lives Matter and female victims of sexual assault, for the rights of immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community, and for addressing the “failings” of the criminal justice system. “Robbie Leonard is the real Democrat in the race,” his campaign literature promised. And it turned out to be an appealing message to primary votes. On the evening of July 19, when the early and in-person votes were tallied, Mr. Leonard actually held a modest lead. It was only after the mail-in ballots were added that Mr. Shellenberger moved ahead, finishing in the unofficial tally 44,962 to 42,847.
The win doesn’t guarantee Mr. Shellenberger’s reelection. He must still face GOP nominee James A. Haynes, who bested Deborah Hill in the Republican primary by about 10 percentage points, though his unofficial vote total was less than half that of Mr. Leonard’s. Mr. Haynes, 72, a retired administrative judge for the U.S. Department of Labor, has already positioned himself more in the O’Connor mold. In The Sun’s candidate questionnaire, for example, when asked about the root causes of crime, he wrote that those were matters best left to public agencies and private nonprofits that can rehabilitate and counsel offenders. “We should all support their work,” he added. “However the public is not protected when the State’s Attorney ignores his or her duty to prosecute criminals and helps spin a revolving door back to the streets.”
Yet the results suggest that Mr. Leonard’s more progressive message found an appreciative audience. And it should not be too big a surprise as polls reveal a majority of Americans now support criminal justice reform across the nation. Gallup opinion surveys, which in years past suggested Americans overwhelmingly saw the criminal justice system as not “tough” enough, now show they are nearly evenly split, with a small majority believing it either “too tough” or “about right.” In the same opinion poll, 63% of Americans supported social and economic solutions to the crime rate. Post-George Floyd, the times are a-changing. Will the next state’s attorney be listening?
Mr. Shellenberger, 63, hasn’t yet spoken to whether he’s learned any lessons here. As a political tactic, he may see advantage to staying on message as his opponent is unlikely to position himself to the incumbent’s political left. Unlike the city, Baltimore County voters are perfectly comfortable in electing Republicans to office. That was Ms. O’Connor’s party affiliation — the same for about one-third of the county’s current delegation to the Maryland General Assembly and three of seven members of the Baltimore County Council. Yet no matter what happens on Nov. 8, county voters have spoken: tens of thousands want their top prosecutor to be more interested in issues of equity, racism and social injustice. That would mean, for example, not opposing police reforms as Mr. Shellenberger has done in the past.
Perhaps Mr. Shellenberger — when he returns from his post-primary wellness sabbatical or whatever he cares to call his time off — could take a moment to signal to his fellow Democrats that he’s at least semi-interested in their concerns. They deserve at least that.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.