The Jessamy-Bernstein Debate: Substance to Bernstein; Style to Bernstein; Penalty Points Against Jessamy – Likely Primary Election Winner: Jessamy

–Richard E. Vatz

The August 12 debate between Patricia Jessamy and Gregg Bernstein on WYPR’s “Midday with Dan Rodricks” tells us a lot about political debates, and it also tells us a lot about the principals and their principles in the current race for City State’s Attorney in the Democratic primary.

When candidates have an unfriendly debate filled with unpleasant, personal attacks, the debate tends to be reported as generally nasty, with the implication being that “there is no love lost between these two,” or, in this case, described as their “frequently trading barbs,” in an otherwise excellent analysis in The Baltimore Sun.

The fact is that sometimes there is a major difference in the candidates in this regard. Yesterday’s ugly debate was one-sidedly nasty, even though both candidates were disdainful of the other.

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It was Mrs. Jessamy who repeatedly – 8 separate iterations – accused Mr. Bernstein of telling “lies” or lying.

A lie is an intentional, knowing deception. To so charge your opponent is considered an inappropriate personal attack in a debate, but one which can be forgiven if the criteria of intentionality and knowledge of falsity of allegations can be proved.

At no time was Mrs. Jessamy asked to justify her use of the term, either by the otherwise good, fair and unobtrusive moderator, Dan Rodricks, or in newspaper accounts following the debate.

Less offensive, but, in Dan Quayle’s famous words, “uncalled for,” were Mrs. Jessamy’s repeated implications that Mr. Bernstein simply had no clue as to how her office operated. It is much better and more proper to indicate that “Mr. Bernstein overlooks x, y and/or z” when discussing the components of the State’s Attorney’s office.

For his part Mr. Bernstein was all substance, and his demeanor was perfect, focusing on issue after issue, avoiding irrelevant personal attacks. It doesn’t mean that he respects Mrs. Jessamy, but all of his criticisms were related to material points regarding the prosecutor and the way her office prosecutes crime in Baltimore City.

Substantively, Mr. Bernstein won going away in this observer’s perception.

They debated about Baltimore’s conviction rate, and the two talked past each other. Jessamy talked about the absolute number of criminals – thousands – convicted, whereas Bernstein focused on the low relative percentage of criminals convicted and the insufficient “substantial periods of time” they are incarcerated, leading to his oft-repeated claim of a “revolving door.” He should have spent a little more time, incidentally, on the shortness of sentences that leads to that revolving door.

Jessamy was asked by Rodricks about her “pretty harsh thing to say” that Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld’s recent behavior in supporting Bernstein’s candidacy could lead to the existence of a “police state in Baltimore City.”

Rodricks asked and immediately reiterated when Jessamy ignored it, “…how would Baltimore become a police state” with “repressive controls over citizens…keep[ing] people from expressing political views…?”.

Jessamy ignored the question the second time as well.

To the extent that the prosecutor’s office dropped the ball on keeping John Wagner, the apparent murderer of Stephen Pitcairn, incarcerated, Jessamy showed an unexpected desire not to blame the police for compromising some evidence or the judge for ignoring Wagner’s parole violations. But she could not explain why she didn’t have sufficient evidence to incarcerate and try him for a robbery for which videotape was available.

Bernstein conceded that Jessamy’s “War Room” does identify the “Worst of the Worst” of criminal offenders but that their conviction rate is 35% (according to a study by former War Room Chief, Page Croyder). Jessamy laughed derisively, but didn’t substantively address Bernstein’s criticism.

Then Bernstein said that “In 2009, 80% of the 6500 domestic violence cases in District Court were effectively dismissed.” He asked about the fact that there is a national model to train states attorneys to prosecute these cases without the victim’s testimony and that such a model has worked in locales wherein it was tried, but that Baltimore City for unknown reasons chose not to use it. Jessamy deplored Bernstein’s “throwing out numbers,” but didn’t respond directly to the criticism.

Jessamy came across as a very intelligent State’s Attorney, but one who had very little to say regarding the relative ineffectiveness of her office, save outrage that she should be criticized by such an inexperienced opponent.

The fact that a candidate is a clear winner on style and substance does not mean, however, that he or she will win an election.

When both debaters are well known, this is particularly evident, but it’s also true sometimes when just one is well known. One memorable example of the former type was the first 1984 Presidential debate between President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale, when the venerable, well-known and beloved president seeking a second term floundered and could not keep his thoughts straight.

The debate didn’t hurt President Reagan at all – people knew him and loved him.

Pat Jessamy is not similarly beloved, but in the reading of the city electorate by this analyst she will win the Democratic primary for City State’s Attorney – perhaps going away.

Such is the limited effect of political debates in many cases when the incumbent is well known and popular — even when she clearly loses a debate on both substance and style.

–Professor Vatz teaches the persuasion of political debates at Towson University

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