With roughly 35,000 Baltimore County ballots yet to be counted, the Democratic primary for state’s attorney was extremely close Tuesday night, with hundreds of votes separating attorney and Maryland Democratic Party Secretary Robbie Leonard and longtime incumbent Scott Shellenberger.

As precinct ballots were tallied, Leonard maintained the marginal lead of 860 votes over Shellenberger, who had gone unchallenged in the primary race for his seat since the “tough on crime” prosecutor was first elected in 2006.

Mail-in ballots won’t begin to be canvassed until Thursday and it could take days or possibly weeks for winners to be declared.

If Leonard clinches the Democratic nomination, he’ll have ousted one of the most prominent voices on law enforcement and criminal justice in Annapolis.

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The winner of the primary will go on to the general election to face 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 primary Tuesday night.

Shellenberger was not available for comment Tuesday night.

Reached by phone Tuesday night, Leonard said that he knew the election wouldn’t be decided until mail-in ballots are counted.

“No point in refreshing my browser window all night long when I could be catching some Z’s,” he said.

Live election results: Baltimore County primary results

Pausing on her way to drop off a ballot at Stoneleigh Elementary School, West Towson resident Ilaina Clement, 62, said she voted for Leonard because she supports his positions on criminal justice reform.

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“I tend to be more moderate,” said Clement, who moved back to Towson late last year, “but there are good aspects to the ‘progressive agenda’” of some chief prosecutors to incarcerate fewer nonviolent, low-level crimes.

Leonard, a former public defender, 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.

Live election results: Maryland Gubernatorial primary

Some voters, though, said they were discouraged from voting for Leonard after receiving a slew of mailers in the waning weeks of the primary from a super political action committee excoriating Shellenberger’s reluctance to prosecute sexual assault crimes and charge police officers who fatally shoot civilians. Shellenberger must defend his office in a jury trial in September against allegations that it and police detectives violated a woman’s First Amendment rights by trying to stop her from filing criminal charges against men she said raped her.

“I don’t like smear campaigns,” said Laurel Matey, a 49-year-old Catonsville resident, referring to the ads distributed by Leonard and his supporters that cast Shellenberger in a bad light.

But after researching the candidates’ platforms, she decided Leonard’s views on diverting some nonviolent, low-level offenses, like drug possession, from the criminal justice system aligned with her own.

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“We need people with new ideas that are gonna change the status quo, which is not really working,” Matey said after casting her vote at Catonsville High School Tuesday afternoon.

Acie Spencer, 55, said he voted for Shellenberger and other incumbents who he says have run their offices effectively.

”I guess the easiest way to put it is, in this instance ... if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Spencer, about his support for Shellenberger.

Leonard, 40, was boosted by super political action committee the Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC, which quickly accrued more than half a million dollars in debt to a New York-based political consultant for advertising materials to promote his campaign. The PAC filed in mid-June and its spending, only related to Leonard’s campaign, far outmatched what either candidate raised throughout the primary.

The Maryland PAC is affiliated with the national Justice & Public Safety PAC, which has helped fund progressive prosecutor candidates in Virginia and Pennsylvania in recent years. It is among dozens of groups pumping money into local races for head prosecutor across the U.S. and funded generously by New York billionaire George Soros and groups associated with him.

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Shellenberger, 63, has criticized Leonard for his lack of prosecutorial experience, his party politics and perspective on criminal justice reform.

Shellenberger also said Leonard’s out-of-state support was troubling. After the Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC’s financial support was disclosed, the incumbent said he’d heard from voters who “didn’t think a billionaire who doesn’t live in Baltimore County should be telling us who the state’s attorney should be,” referring to George Soros, who pumps money into the national Justice & Public Safety PAC and dozens of similarly-named groups that support reformist candidates in local chief prosecutors’ races across the U.S.

Baltimore Banner reporters Taji Burris and Sophie Kasakove contributed to this article.


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