Carl Stokes is making it official tonight.
Mr. Stokes, an outspoken advocate on the Baltimore City Council for reforming the beleaguered public schools, is opening his campaign for council presidency with a fund-raiser at a downtown law firm.
His entry into the heavily contested race in September's citywide election has been anticipated for months. Mr. Stokes, who has represented East Baltimore's 2nd District for two terms, made his ambition known more than a year ago after Council President Mary Pat Clarke announced she would run for mayor.
"I want to step into the leadership of the city," Mr. Stokes said. "I think the city is at a point where we're at a crossroads. We need someone who will question the administration, whoever it may be, on volatile matters like education, housing and public safety."
In what has become an intense, wide-open competition, Mr. Stokes is vying with three other members of the all-Democratic City Council for the city's second-highest office. Also running are council Vice President Vera P. Hall, who represents the 5th District, Lawrence A. Bell III of the 4th District and Joseph J. DiBlasi of the 6th District.
Some who follow city politics closely say Mr. Stokes could appeal to voters on the east side, while Mrs. Hall and Mr. Bell split the west side. But others believe the legendary division between east and west Baltimore is no longer significant.
Fourth District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a supporter of Mrs. Hall, said she's less worried about an east-west split than the fracturing of the city's black vote.
"Personally, I think there are too many people getting into the race," she said. "It divides people, particularly since three of the candidates are African-American."
Mr. DiBlasi, the only white in the race, was the first to make his campaign official last fall.
"I'm running my campaign the same way whether there is one opponent or 10," he said.
Councilman Stokes, 44, is known for his interest in the Baltimore school system and his thorough public hearings on issues ranging from school violence to the effectiveness of the city's privatization experiment.
He also was a leader in crafting a redistricting plan four years ago that shifted the council makeup from three black-majority districts to five.
"More than any other City Council person, he's been in the forefront of what the priorities are for Baltimore education," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.