Baltimore voters will take to the polls Tuesday in one of the most competitive elections in city history and the first without an incumbent mayor in 28 years.
The mayoral race drew national attention for its 27 candidates -- and for some of their missteps and foibles, including a little-known candidate's arrest on burglary charges.
"The important thing [for candidates] is to provide specific solutions, and the person who articulates that best will win," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who will step down in December after 12 years. "It's just so difficult when you have so many candidates."
And the primary election races on the bottom of the ticket are equally competitive.
Six Democrats will compete for City Council president, the city's second-highest elected office, while 57 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one Libertarian candidate will jostle for 18 council seats in six districts. The ballot also includes a re-election bid by the city comptroller, who is being challenged by two Democrats in Tuesday's primary.
With two days to go, many of the races are still up for grabs, as Baltimore braces for the first sweeping government transformation in over a decade.
The eyes of the nation are expected to be on the mayoral race to see whether Baltimore will be the latest predominantly black city to elect a white mayor.
Although two out of three Baltimore residents are black, white City Councilman Martin O'Malley is expected to benefit Tuesday by a split in the city's black vote.
O'Malley faces two veteran black politicians in City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former City Councilman Carl Stokes in their attempts to become Baltimore's 47th mayor.
In predominantly black cities such as Oakland, Calif., and Gary, Ind., residents have abandoned racial solidarity to choose the candidate they believed best suited to address urban poverty and the problems that go with it: rampant drug use, chronic joblessness, a reign of murder and blighted neighborhoods.
Unlike the 1995 mayoral race, when Baltimore residents tended to vote along racial lines, recent polls show an estimated one in five black voters leaning toward O'Malley, while Stokes is favored by one in four white voters.
"I think many of the voters, both black and white, are looking for a mayor to turn the city around," said Herb C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor.
Schmoke era ending
The search for Baltimore's new leader began 40 weeks ago when Schmoke announced his decision to forgo a fourth four-year term.
The city's first elected black mayor -- who arrived almost 100 years after the first black city councilman, a Republican, was elected -- gained national fame for calling drug addiction a medical problem instead of a criminal issue.
Yet the mayoral tenure of the Rhodes scholar and high school quarterback hero has remained hampered by 1,000 mostly middle-class residents moving out of Baltimore each month, leaving behind a city with one out of every four residents living in poverty.
Schmoke has overseen the demolition of the city's high-rise public housing and its replacement with new townhouse communities. But he has been stymied in his attempts to find the solutions to 300 homicides a year, the lowest school test scores in the state, the loss of manufacturing jobs and a property tax rate two times that of any other jurisdiction in Maryland.
The Mfume draft
As quickly as the mayoral race began, it appeared to be over when 250 political, community and business leaders attempted to draft Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The former congressman and councilman from West Baltimore seemed the perfect antidote to the urban strife.
But in May, after five months of consideration, Mfume spurned the effort, deciding to remain with the nation's oldest civil rights group and leaving Stokes and Bell as the chief mayoral candidates.
Stokes had joined the race immediately after Schmoke's announcement. At coffee klatches across the city, the 49-year-old former city councilman and school board member told supporters he was running because "I'm not going to live like this anymore."
Stokes immediately became a long-shot with the emergence of Bell, a 12-year council veteran whose name recognition appeared to give him the status of a virtual incumbent.
Bell, 37, raised $1.1 million in his mayoral bid after gaining the support of city labor unions, including police, with his pledge to bring to Baltimore the zero-tolerance crime-fighting strategy credited with reducing violent crime and drug dealing in cities such as New York, Cleveland and New Orleans.
One man conspicuously absent at the Bell mayoral announcement was O'Malley. The two had climbed to the forefront of council leadership over the past eight years, earning the nicknames "Batman and Robin" for their tough crime-fighting proposals.
O'Malley and Bell had a falling-out that came to a head in April, when Bell cast the deciding vote on a plan that permitted a rubble-crushing plant for the remnants of demolished city housing in Northeast Baltimore, just outside O'Malley's district.
When O'Malley joined the mayoral race in June -- two weeks before the filing deadline -- he was quickly labeled by opponents as a political opportunist who was trying to capitalize on the expected split of the black vote.
The 36-year-old former state prosecutor, who gained his reputation as a City Council maverick for challenging Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, said he joined the race after determining that Bell and Stokes were failing to address the issue most critical to city voters: closing down the open-air drug markets.
"I came to a point where I didn't fear losing as much as I feared not trying," O'Malley said.
O'Malley has benefited most from stumbles by Bell and Stokes in the campaign. Just before the filing deadline, Stokes was forced to acknowledge that he had falsely claimed an English degree from Loyola College.
The admission came weeks after Stokes was photographed driving with a suspended license after failing to pay two traffic tickets. Most recently, he was forced to address a $13,799 federal tax lien dating to 1991 that existed during his tenure on the council, a debt he had settled in 1996.
Stokes said those setbacks shouldn't weigh heavily when voters make their choice on Tuesday.
"I hope my campaign is a preview to my administration," Stokes said. "When we make a mistake, we stand up and accept it."
Bell was forced to explain himself after lawsuits surfaced showing that he failed to pay condominium fees until threatened with court action. Bell also had to settle a lawsuit over his 1996 Ford Mustang that the bank repossessed.
Bell reached out to black voters and was accused by supporters of rival campaigns of "playing the race card" when he urged a black festival crowd to vote for "a man who looks like you do."
The campaign tension culminated in early August, when Bell supporters disrupted the endorsement of O'Malley by prominent black state legislators, including Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House of Delegates' Appropriations Committee. The outcry over the Bell supporters' shouting down the endorsement resulted in Bell's dismissing campaign consultant Julius Henson.
The campaign missteps have cost Bell the support of voters such as Haille Stapleton, a 25-year-old Morgan State University graduate student of American history. Stapleton said Bell's handling of his campaign has raised doubts in her mind over whether he has the managerial skills necessary to run the city.
"If you want to know about the deacon, look at how he runs his household," she said. "I look at how he runs his household, and I don't like it."
Bell and experience
Yet, Bell heads into Tuesday's primary with a loyal following and support from people such as Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police union.
McLhinney, who filmed a campaign commercial for Bell, promotes Bell's council record on public safety. Bell backers also boast of his support for the creation of a civilian review board, restoration of recreation budget cuts, reduced property taxes and legislation to expand the participation of minority businesses in city contracts.
Campaign missteps should not erase his 12-year council record, supporters say.
"He really does have 12 years of proven ability," McLhinney said. "People are tired of promises; show me what you've done."
Stokes and education
Stokes has been able to resurrect his campaign due to endorsements from groups such as the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
The group of about 200 mostly black churches credits Stokes with the most experience among the three leading candidates.
Much as Schmoke did when first elected in 1987, Stokes has staked his candidacy on a pledge to improve city schools and neighborhoods. As a city councilman from 1987 to 1995, Stokes is best remembered for chairing the council's education committee, where he became among the first to criticize the state of city schools.
Stokes then spent a year and a half on the city school board, where he pushed for reducing class sizes, an issue he continues hammering on the campaign trail. He has promised to cut class sizes to 15, which he believes will result in higher test scores.
He has also promised to restore cuts to the city's 18 recreation centers and create better after-school programs to keep children occupied to save them from becoming drug market recruits.
The former clothing store operator and health care company representative is bright, soft-spoken and articulate, scoring points with ministers for his pledge to move economic progress from downtown to uptown.
"Carl Stokes is cool-headed and mature," said the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, president of the alliance. "He's capable of leading Baltimore in times of crisis and opportunity. He knows what Baltimore needs to win the battle against drugs, ignorance and intolerance."
O'Malley and crime
As Stokes has chosen education, O'Malley has bet his political future on crime. He, too, promotes zero-tolerance and a five-point system to streamline the city's clogged justice system and ensure that time, money and resources are dedicated to tackling the city's worst criminals.
The exodus of city residents can be stemmed, O'Malley contends, only if the city can shut down the illegal drug trade blamed for 75 percent of city felonies, including more than 300 homicides a year.
"We've almost come to accept that open-air drug markets are something we can't do anything about," O'Malley said. "I believe there is a greatness in every neighborhood of our city that just needs to be tapped."
Victoria Bruns, who is black, is among the residents who say O'Malley has put his finger on the city's biggest problem.
Her community group, the Washington Village Improvement Association, is pretty much defunct. And the 40-year-old financial consultant laments the city's demise. Youths stand idle on neighborhood corners. Shattered glass from the smashed windows of stolen cars glistens in the gutter. Blocks are pockmarked with vacant homes.
She has lobbied her husband, Christopher Bruns, to surrender and join the other residents leaving the city. But the couple have decided to give Baltimore one last chance. That chance comes Tuesday, she said.
Bruns backs O'Malley because he's won re-election in a predominantly black district. And his willingness to jump into the race tells her he has a willingness to take risks that she feels has been lacking in city government.
"I don't care how you slice it or dice it, the No. 1 thing is crime," she said. "It's not about gender, it's not about race, it's who can lead us."
Baltimore voters will have the largest number of choices in a mayoral race that anyone can remember. In addition to the three best-known candidates, 13 other Democrats -- ranging from city Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway to perennial candidate and social activist A. Robert Kaufman -- are seeking the city's top post.
Conaway, the most prominent female candidate, is appealing to gender, noting that Baltimore's previous 46 mayors were men. "And look what shape the city is in," she said.
The city's 30,000 Republican voters -- outnumbered 9-1 by Democrats -- will choose from among six GOP mayoral candidates who are hoping to survive until the November general election.
In the end, the most unarguable statement of the campaign might have come from William Edward Roberts, who participated in the last mayoral race without an incumbent mayor. The 72-year-old East Baltimore community activist finished fifth in the 1971 Democratic primary that ignited the 16-year tenure of William Donald Schaefer.
Still aching from the death of a son and the imprisonment of a daughter for drugs, Roberts jumped into this year's race knowing that he had little chance of winning. More important, he decided, was taking his message to the masses: "Jobs, not jails."
During a recent Center for Poverty Solutions mayoral forum, Roberts used all of his speaking time to prod city residents to vote.
With the mayoral race still too close to call, Roberts said, the decision will rest with city voters.
"You have the power," Roberts said. "The people have the power."
Leading candidates for mayor of Baltimore
Here is a quick look at the qualifications and backgrounds of the leading candidates on the Democratic and Republican sides for mayor of Baltimore.
Lawrence A. Bell III, 37, Democrat
Political offices: Baltimore City Council, fourth district, 1988-95; Baltimore City Council president, 1996-present; Baltimore City Board of Estimates, chairman, 1996-99
Jobs held: Dental office management, 1984-87; Circuit Court clerk, 1983-84
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Maryland
Activities and associations: Citizens on Patrol; Baltimore Museum of Art; Walters Art Gallery; Young Responsible Father's Program; Baltimore City Jail Mentoring Program; Mentoring Program of Charles Hickey School; School 122 SIT program; sponsor of Ms. Baltimore Scholarship Pageant; Juvenile Service Administration Foster Service Program; Northwood Rams Pee Wee Football Team; Coppin State College Honors Program
Martin O'Malley, 36, Democrat
Political offices: Baltimore City Council, third district, 1992-present
Jobs held: Attorney in private practice, 1990-present; assistant state's attorney, Baltimore City, 1988-90; legislative fellow, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, 1987-88; state field director, Mikulski for Senate, 1986
Education: Doctorate in jurisprudence, University of Maryland; Bachelor's degree, Catholic University of America
Activities and associations: St. Francis of Assisi Church; Friendly Sons of St. Patrick; founder and leader of the musical group O'Malley's March
Carl Stokes, 49, Democrat
Political offices: Baltimore City School Board, 1997-98; Baltimore City Council, 2nd District, 1988-95
Jobs held: Vice president of business development, Mid-Atlantic Health Care, 1993-present; zone manager, The Sun, 1981-1991; owner of local retail clothing stores, 1977-1984
Education: Attended Loyola College
Activities and associations: Board member, Institute of Notre Dame; board member, Eubie Blake Cultural Arts Center; co-founder, sickle cell clinic (ASSERT); co-founder, Baltimore Basketball Association; former board member, Loyola High School; former chairman, Ryan White AIDS Coordination Council; former member, BUILD strategy team; Christmas in April, CPFIA; Charles Village Neighborhood Association
Carl Adair, 65, Republican
Political offices: Delegate, Republican National Convention, 1980; member, Baltimore Republican State Central Committee
Jobs held: Baltimore City school teacher, 1996-present and 1959-63; owner, Carl Adair Amoco and Food Shop-Garage, 1963-96; dean of students, Coppin State College, 1970-71; department chairman and assistant professor, Coppin State, 1971-73; U.S. Army, 1956-58
Activities and associations: Virginia State University Alumni Association; Coppin State College Alumni Association; Hillsdale Heights Neighborhood Association; Camp Farthest Out Inc.; Edmondson High School PTO; former member, Baltimore City Planning Committee; former member, Baltimore City Community Relations Committee; former supervisor, Baltimore Board of Election Supervisors
David F. Tufaro, 52, Republican
Jobs held: Summit Properties, managing regional partner, chief operating officer and chief investment officer, 1984-99; housing developer, Oxford Development Corp., 1978-84; attorney, Piper & Marbury, 1973-78
Activities and associations: Neighborhood Design Center; Cathedral Housing; Coldstream-Homestead Montebello Development Corp.; York Road Area Planning Committee; Baltimore Heritage; Baltimore Corporation for Housing Partnerships; Roland Park Community Foundation; Habitat for Humanity