Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger has survived an aggressive primary challenge in a race that offered voters contrasting visions of what a top prosecutor’s priorities should be.
Ten days after Election Day, Shellenberger officially prevailed Friday in the Democratic contest between him and Robbie Leonard, a former public defender who is now an attorney in private practice. Vote-counting stretched on for more than a week because of the large number of mail-in ballots cast in Maryland’s primary election.
Leonard, 40, was the first Democrat to go up against Shellenberger, 63, since the incumbent was elected in 2006. Leonard, who is secretary of the Maryland Democratic Party, ran on a progressive platform with the motto, “It’s time for a change.”
After the final results were announced, Shellenberger did not respond to a request for comment, but issued a statement through his campaign. He vowed to “continue to seek the fair administration of justice for and the protection of anyone residing in or visiting Baltimore County.”
“Many different voices made themselves heard throughout the course of this primary election, and I was heartened by the instances when the issues were fairly discussed and debated,” he said.
On election night, it looked like Shellenberger could be unseated after 15 years in office. With in-person and early voting ballots tallied, Leonard held a narrow lead of 860 votes.
But when counting of mail-in ballots started later that week, Shellenberger closed the gap and then gained ground.
Leonard conceded about 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon.
“We came up short of victory, but we started a real conversation for change,” said Leonard, speaking to reporters at the county Board of Elections building. “And the voters of Baltimore County deserve that change.”
The final unofficial votes were Shellenberger with 44,962 and Leonard with 42,847.
Shellenberger, a Towson resident, will face Republican James A. Haynes in the November general election. Haynes, 72, of Rodgers Forge, is a retired administrative judge with the U.S. Department of Labor and a former state assistant attorney general. Haynes has called himself “a political outsider.”
Throughout the Democratic campaign, Leonard sought to bring scrutiny to Shellenberger’s record in office. He criticized Shellenberger’s handling of sexual assaults and police shootings, and his stance on reform legislation in Annapolis, where he has had an influential voice on criminal justice issues.
Leonard spoke frequently of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. He wanted to engage with those “directly impacted by the failings of the justice system,” such as domestic violence victims and people returning home after incarceration. He said low-level offenses should be diverted out of the criminal justice system to preserve resources for violent crime, and vowed not to prosecute cases of marijuana possession for personal use.
The county police and fire unions backed Shellenberger, while Leonard won endorsements from local Democratic clubs, progressive groups and other labor organizations, including the county teachers union.
Leonard portrayed Shellenberger as out of step with today’s Democrats, someone who hadn’t changed with the times.
Shellenberger painted Leonard, who has never been a prosecutor, as unprepared for the office. The state’s attorney said he has supported what he considers “reasonable” criminal justice reform, and touted his long experience prosecuting crime and supervising dozens of attorneys.
Shellenberger, seen as a traditional “law-and-order” prosecutor, defended his record during the campaign and said his office aggressively prosecuted crimes of violence, especially gun offenses. He said it is worth prosecuting low-level crimes and that the court system is, at times, what gets someone help. For example, many people are required to get drug treatment during probation.
While some dismissed Leonard as a long-shot candidate and were stunned by the initial results, other observers believed the contest would be close, especially toward the end of the campaign.
“You certainly have to be impressed with the energy and campaign that Robbie ran to challenge an incumbent,” former County Executive Don Mohler, a Democrat who backed Shellenberger, said last week after Leonard’s strong showing on election night.
But Mohler and other Shellenberger supporters also point to the influence of outside money that supported Leonard’s candidacy. The Maryland Justice and Public Safety PAC, funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, poured nearly $784,000 into the race over a month, flooding many county Democrats’ mailboxes and social media feeds with advertisements. Soros has funded progressive prosecutor candidates around the country.
“I’m happy to see that a billionaire couldn’t buy an election,” County Councilman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat who supported Shellenberger, said this week as Shellenberger was ahead during vote-counting.
Quirk called the PAC’s ad campaign “character assassination” that influenced the race and said, “Scott has always done his job very professionally.”
Leonard supporters said the candidate’s platform is what attracted voters.
“At the end of the day, Robbie garnered so much support because so many people supported his vision,” Rev. Marlon Tilghman, a pastor and county resident, said this week.
Tilghman said Shellenberger has not shown “fairness to people of color,“ pointing to factors including his stance on state juvenile justice reform legislation.
Tilghman, of Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air, supported the state Child Interrogation Protection Act for kids taken into police custody. Shellenberger opposed the legislation.
Leonard supporter Peta Richkus said his campaign generated “energy that … was visible throughout the county.”
One local professor said he sees the closeness of the race as a sign county voters are more open to criminal justice reforms than some previously believed.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“There’s a growing awareness that the criminal justice system as usual is not acceptable,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore’s law school. He pointed to the murder of George Floyd, the Freddie Gray case and the Gun Trace Task Force scandal.
The world “has changed a lot in the last four years,” Jaros said.
“Black Lives Matter and issues related to mass incarceration have sort of gone mainstream as viable, relevant issues,” Jaros said. “The strength of Leonard’s candidacy, I think, suggests that the public has an appetite for criminal justice reform.”
Leonard’s and the PAC’s messaging focused heavily on Shellenberger’s handling of sexual assault cases. The state’s attorney and others in his office are defendants in an ongoing federal lawsuit in which a woman who reported she was raped alleges they violated her constitutional rights. Some female voters told The Baltimore Sun during the campaign that issues related to sexual assault were why they supported Leonard.
Shellenberger’s primary win comes as he takes time away from the office.
His office issued a statement Thursday saying he plans to return the week after next, and is “still in consistent contact” with staff and making management decisions. The statement came hours after The Daily Record reported that Shellenberger told his staff he needed time away from the office, citing exhaustion after the election.