Mosby's focus on crime helped unseat Bernstein

Lawyer Marilyn J. Mosby entered the Baltimore state's attorney race as a decided underdog. Just 34 years old, she was seeking to unseat a well-connected incumbent who would outraise her by a 3-to-1 margin. She'd never prosecuted a rape or murder case. Some of Baltimore's high-powered lawyers met her campaign with eye rolls.

But Mosby's message — consistently expressing outrage over Baltimore's crime rate — resonated with voters. In Tuesday's Democratic primary, she easily defeated State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, 58, by 10 percentage points.

The sweeping victory left some political observers scratching their heads. Bernstein, observers said, had followed a playbook used successfully by many incumbents: Don't draw attention to your challengers. Ignore them, and you'll prevail.

In Bernstein's case, the strategy backfired.

"He just completely ignored her for months," said Mosby's husband, Nick, a city councilman. "He thought, 'It's just a woman yelling and screaming.' But what she was saying wasn't necessarily coming from Marilyn. It was coming from the community. That's what he didn't realize."

The victory underscored a persistent truth in Baltimore elections. While crime has decreased in recent years, hundreds are still killed annually. Mosby, a former city prosecutor, tapped into the outrage over those deaths, while Bernstein — a former federal prosecutor who stressed how he had streamlined his office — sometimes appeared aloof, experts said.

"She organized her ads around crime victims and their realities," said Johns Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson. "It had a popular appeal that statements about competence, experience and efficiency didn't have."

Mosby ran an efficient campaign that made the most of her limited funds, observers said. Analysts pointed to Mosby's support among a high-profile African-American attorneys, such as William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. and A. Dwight Pettit; the backing of a majority of the City Council and former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume; and an alliance with noted fundraiser Colleen Martin-Lauer as reasons for her victory. Mosby also benefited from free media exposure she got by holding anti-crime walks with her husband for nearly a year.

"People look at me and they doubt," said Mosby, an insurance lawyer. "They say, 'She's so young,' but people related to what we were trying to do. ... When you live in West Baltimore and crime is plaguing your community, you become outraged."

Others said they believed race played a factor in the voting.

Bernstein, who is white, was the first one-term incumbent to lose the city state's attorney's race in 40 years. For nearly three decades before he took office in 2011, the city's top prosecutors — Patricia C. Jessamy, Stuart O. Simms and Kurt L. Schmoke — had been African-American.

Some observers said Mosby prevailed in part because some African-Americans wanted a black state's attorney. "There was a flexing of the black power muscle in trying to reclaim the position held by Jessamy," said Bernstein supporter Warren A. Brown, a lawyer who is black.

But Brown also believes Bernstein made a miscalculation by not countering Mosby's rhetoric — which portrayed Bernstein as out of touch with the city and chided him for moving prosecutors into new suites in a downtown skyscraper.

"Gregg is more a public servant than a politician," Brown said. "He's not going to proceed in a fashion of hyperbole, accusation and innuendo. He was polite and gentlemanly in the face of unheralded accusations and embellishments."

Bernstein declined to be interviewed for this article.

For months, Bernstein wouldn't engage Mosby. He deferred questions about the contest, saying he was focused on his job. Nevertheless, he amassed a large campaign treasury — almost $630,000 to Mosby's $200,000.

But Mosby continued to make inroads with voters. She highlighted her life story in advertisements, stressing her family's long history in law enforcement, including several relatives who are police officers. That message gained support.

For instance, Mount Vernon resident Charles Stafford, 71, said he voted for Mosby after learning about her background.

"I figured she needs a chance," he said.

And Mosby continued to hammer away to Bernstein during community meetings across Baltimore and in mailings, arguing that he was unable to win important cases, including against a man accused of rape four times.

"We need a prosecutor who can win the tough cases," one of Mosby's mailers stated.

In the days before the primary, Bernstein shifted strategies. Bernstein aides called Mosby unqualified for the job and filed an election law complaint against her. By then, analysts said, it was too late.

The primary election results appear "insane" when one compares Mosby's experience to Bernstein's, Brown said.

"It's like taking a new police officer off the street and making him the chief of police," he said.

But political strategist Larry Gibson, who was an adviser to Schmoke, supported Mosby. He rejected suggestions that she was unqualified, noting her experience as a prosecutor and her family's involvement in law enforcement.

Gibson said Mosby benefited from an "element of surprise" in her win over Bernstein.

"Gregg Bernstein didn't realize how strong the challenge was because most of what Marilyn Mosby did never came to his attention," Gibson said. "It was logical that he would conclude that this was not a challenger who could beat him. It was only in the last month that major portions of the campaign became visible to him."

Mosby could face defense attorney Russell A. Neverdon Sr. in the November election for the job, which pays $238,000. Neverdon needs to gather about 4,100 signatures to secure a spot on the ballot as an independent.

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