Four days before Maryland’s primary election on Sept. 14, Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy was out at the corner of Auchentoroly Terrace and Gwynns Falls Parkway, near the main entrance of Druid Hill Park in the heart of West Baltimore. Jessamy, waving vigorously and smiling broadly at passing motorists, was joined by a group of supporters including her long-time political strategist Pat Scott.
Of course there is nothing extraordinary about a candidate for political office on an early morning wave in an effort to pick up votes. But Jessamy is engaged in the most extraordinary battle of her political career against veteran defense attorney Gregg Bernstein to hold onto the office she has held since 1995.
That same day, the volatile issue of race, which had been lingering on the periphery of the contest since Bernstein announced his intention to run for state’s attorney, detonated like a roadside bomb on the campaign trail.
“If he was elected he would be taking us back 60 years,” Jessamy recently said of her opponent at a meeting of the all-Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Jessamy’s comments during the meeting were posted on YouTube and sparked a firestorm Sept. 10 after Baltimore media got wind of them.
Of course, the “us” Jessamy alluded to during that meeting is Black people. And 60 years ago would take “us” back to the days of segregation and government-sanctioned oppression of Blacks in Baltimore, the city where government-sanctioned segregation has a long history. It didn’t take long for Bernstein’s supporters, including fellow attorney Warren Brown, his most vocal Black supporter, to come after Jessamy, guns blazing.
“To reference the pain and suffering during that time is pathetic,” Brown told The Baltimore Sun. “She’s pandering to animosities and hatred, and she’s also giving the Black community very little credit for having any intelligence. It’s just a reflection that she understands the race is getting away from her.”
The Bernstein campaign’s assertion that Jessamy’s carefully crafted statement is a racial Hail Mary lobbed to save her job probably resonates with some—mostly Bernstein supporters. But the statement in context actually draws an important distinction between Jessamy and the man who wants to take her job.
“My opponent, he doesn’t think a prosecutor’s office should have anything to do with prevention, intervention and treatment. I don’t know a prosecutor’s office in the country that practices that,” Jessamy said just before making the “60 years” comment.
Just as Bernstein has constantly pounded Jessamy on her office’s conviction rate and the city’s crime rate, she has continued to argue Bernstein’s approach would turn Baltimore into a, “police state,” arguing Bernstein simply wants to, “lock everybody up.”
The truth is that when Bernstein sat down for an interview at the AFRO a few weeks ago, I heard him essentially say that he had little interest in, “talking to groups,” which seemed to be a dismissal of the current state’s attorney’s emphasis on community outreach.
Let’s be clear: Baltimore’s ubiquitous color line was established decades before either Bernstein or Jessamy—a native of Mississippi who knows something about segregation—were born.
So, the issue of race was bound to take center stage, especially in this city. It was inevitable. Just take a drive down Greenmount Avenue as it transitions into York Road and the story is revealed, literally in Black and White.
In the predominately Black neighborhoods on the lower end of York Road, Jessamy’s black and red signs are everywhere. But, as you go deeper into Govans and take a stroll down the side streets of those predominately White neighborhoods, Bernstein’s white and red lawn signs are clearly dominant.
So Jessamy is shoring up her Black base, because it is really her only chance of remaining state’s attorney. Is she playing the race card? Yes. Is it fair? It’s about as fair as it was for Bernstein to lay the retaliation murder of an East Baltimore family who spoke out against local drug dealers solely at the feet of Pat Jessamy.
Bottom line, Bernstein’s huge cash advantage, his relentless attacks and the changing demographics of Baltimore, where the Black political power base has been slowly eroding for decades, has Jessamy on the ropes. But, Bernstein dismisses Jessamy’s political guile and the network of support she has crafted for the last 15 years at his own peril.