Incumbent Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger remained ahead in the Democratic primary for his office after more than 12,000 more mail-in votes were added Sunday, extending his lead over progressive challenger Robbie Leonard to 2,150 votes in the latest accounting of mail-in ballots.
Leonard initially held a marginal lead in early and election day voting over the chief prosecutor, who is fighting for a fifth term. Leonard is the first primary opponent Shellenberger has faced since he was first elected in 2006. He has sailed easily to victory since.
The local elections board mailed more than 70,500 requested ballots and has gotten back more than 48,100 as of Saturday.
County elections director Ruie LaVoie said she expects to process thousands more ballots by July 29, the target date for certification of election results, but it will likely take longer in the more populous counties.
Reached by phone Sunday, Shellenberger said he wouldn’t comment until the final results are determined.
Leonard, an attorney, said Friday he was focusing less on vote tallies and more on work as a few thousand ballots are being uploaded at a time.
As his supporters update him on the results, Leonard remains mindful that there are tens of thousands of ballots left to count.
“It’s hard for people to make predictions off of a really small sample size,” Leonard said Friday.
Leonard, who is also secretary of the Maryland Democratic Party, ended Tuesday with 860 more votes than Shellenberger, before Sunday’s results put the top prosecutor ahead with 51.4% of the vote.
Leonard’s head-start was a surprise to some election watchers who say Shellenberger is generally well regarded and a powerful voice on law enforcement policy in Annapolis.
“The fact that an incumbent like Scott Shellenberger is in such a close race with a newcomer like Robbie Leonard, I think, speaks volumes about the public’s willingness to consider new approaches to criminal justice,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
The race between the “tough-on crime” chief prosecutor and his reformist challenger has broadly focused on which crimes to prosecute. Leonard wants to divert low-level offenses from the roughly 30,000 cases the state’s attorney’s office says it handles annually; hold police officers accountable with a police integrity division if they’ve committed misconduct; and create a unit to self-audit some prior convictions for proof of innocence.
Shellenberger, 63, who describes himself as politically independent (and has in the past split with his party over positions on criminal justice reform measures, like repealing capital punishment), has criticized Leonard, 40, for his lack of prosecutorial experience, his party politics, and positions on judicial policy that Shellenberger says could erode public safety, like allowing drug abusers “back on the streets” without court-ordered treatment. Leonard has said he’s considering adding safe injection sites in the county.
After a well-connected super political action committee pumped more than half a million dollars into Leonard’s campaign advertising — without yet reporting its donors — the incumbent said it seemed to some like outside influence was creeping into the local race.
Leonard’s campaign — and its wealthy supporters — have slammed Shellenberger for his justifications against prosecuting many sexual assault crimes and his disinclination to charge police officers who fatally shoot civilians (the prosecutor contends his office has charged 18 police officers in the last decade, including the former president of the county police union).
Win or lose, Jaros said Leonard’s narrow lead illustrates “a profound shift in the ‘tough on crime,’ pro-law enforcement messaging that we typically see in a state’s attorney race.”
“Police misconduct, and Black Lives Matter [social movement], and other things that have been portrayed as progressive prosecution policies actually have a lot more traction than many people might assume,” Jaros said.
The primary victor will face either Republican James A. Haynes, 72, a former federal labor department administrative judge who lives in Rodgers Forge, or Deborah Hill, 60, a private practice attorney who lives in Cockeysville. Haynes led the two-candidate primary with 55% of the vote Friday morning.
Shellenberger is expected to stand trial in September to defend himself against allegations he violated the First Amendment rights of a former Towson University student in 2018 when the State’s Attorney Office sent police detectives to the female student’s grandmother’s residence in Baltimore City to stop the student from attempting to file criminal charges against four men she said raped her.
But Jaros said he doubts the allegations against Shellenberger alone significantly swayed voters “if it weren’t also that some of [Leonard’s] policy proposals were resonating.”
Friday’s results started to give a better look into what the final outcome of other races could be as well.
Democratic County Council primary for open seats neck-in-neck
Towson community activist Mike Ertel continued to hold his lead Sunday for the open 6th District seat on the County Council to represent the Towson, Rosedale and Middle River areas.
Results released Sunday put Ertel, an insurance broker, just under 720 votes ahead of Shafiyq Hinton, a 30-year-old political newcomer and realtor endorsed by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
After Tuesday’s canvass, just a handful of votes had separated Ertel, 56, and Hinton, who held the marginal lead until Friday.
With 44.8% of the vote Saturday, Del. Pat Young, 39, led the Democratic primary for the other open seat in the southwestern 1st District surrounding Catonsville, Arbutus, Halethorpe and part of Woodlawn. He’ was up about 8 percentage points over former small business owner Paul Dongarra, 52.
The nonpartisan races for three open school board seats — in the 1st, 2nd and 4th districts — remain competitive in districts where some candidates endorsed by Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and the teachers’ union are vying against opponents whose campaigns have been tinged with far-right rhetoric.
Voters elect seven of the school board’s dozen members. The two candidates who receive the most votes in each of three districts will go head-to-head in November.
Robin Harvey, who was endorsed by Olszewski and leads the state office overseeing licensing and monitoring of private foster care agencies, is more than 5,000 votes ahead of current runner-up Cory Koons, who directs a private environmental analysis laboratory. George W. Roycroft III, a Baltimore City teacher who lives in Catonsville, trails.
In the 2nd District, frontrunner Jane Lichter, a lifelong educator who was endorsed by Olszewski, has a nearly 2,100 vote lead over Rebecca Chesner, a retired Baltimore City schools psychologist. Chesner is only 101 votes ahead of LaShaune Stitt, who leads an education consulting firm.
Brenda Hatcher-Savoy is the frontrunner in the 4th District, with 5,700 votes and a 1,780 vote lead over Samay Singh Kindra, a 24-year-old law student, who has 3,920 votes. J. Michael Collins, who is opposed to critical race theory — an academic concept about systemic racism that is not taught in the public schools, but some fear will be — follows with 3,530, and Autrese Thornton, a supervising service coordinator trails with 2,356 votes.
The conservative education political action committee, Children 1st PAC, endorsed Koons, Chesner and Collins.
Baltimore Banner reporter Kristen Griffith contributed to this article.