Up to 100,000 Baltimore voters will cast ballots Tuesday to select the city's 47th mayor, concluding an often combative 12-month contest, the first in 28 years in which no incumbent is seeking the post.
Democratic City Councilman Martin O'Malley faces Republican David F. Tufaro to determine who will lead Baltimore into the next century.
Voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic city will also elect a new City Council president, city comptroller and 18 council members, including races in two districts where Republicans are pushing hard to become the first GOP members on the council in 60 years.
The big race remains the mayor's contest. The victor will immediately face the challenge of turning around a city with one of the nation's highest homicide rates, widespread poverty, the state's worst schools and a property tax rate double that of any other jurisdiction in Maryland.
Judging from the debate throughout the yearlong race that began when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would step down after three terms, crime is the main issue.
O'Malley, 36, vaulted to the front of a 17-candidate Democratic pack during the summer by pledging to eradicate the city's open-air drug markets and cut a homicide rate that has made Baltimore the fourth-deadliest city in the nation over the past decade.
The former prosecutor and defense attorney has said that if elected he will adopt the zero-tolerance crime-fighting strategy that has been credited with reducing violent crime in other cities, including New York; New Orleans; Newark, N.J.; and Philadelphia.
The eight-year council member from Northeast Baltimore has faced a growing number of critics who fear that his plan to crack down on nuisance infractions such as public drinking and loitering would result in more harassment and police brutality against blacks, the majority of the city's population.
That worry was heightened this month when a black East Baltimore man suspected of stealing a car was shot to death by a white police officer who said the man was reaching for his partner's gun.
Witnesses have contradicted the police version, saying that 21-year-old Larry J. Hubbard was executed by police after being roughed up while pleading for his life.
In a city where more than half of black males between the ages of 18 and 34 are in jail, face criminal charges or are on probation, Tufaro said, noting Health Department statistics, a police crackdown is bound to fall disproportionately on black men.
Tufaro supports the current "community policing" strategy advocated by Schmoke.
"We need a policing practice that will not create a sense of fear," Tufaro said in answering a black senior high school student.
For every zero-tolerance critic, there are black city residents such as Guyton Clayton who support the plan to take back city streets conquered by drug dealers.
Clayton and several East Baltimore neighbors have built a wooden box at Ashland and Rose streets, sleeping outside overnight for the past three months to keep drug dealers -- whose riches give them hero status among neighborhood children -- off their block.
In addition, Clayton and company collect up to 6 tons of trash a week from their neighborhood. They say the city has ceased to provide them with basic police and sanitation services.
"We need the help of a mayor that understands zero tolerance is the only way," said Clayton, a jail guard. "We need real change."
"What we have now is 100 percent tolerance, which means do whatever you want," said Clayton's associate Elroy Christopher. "We need to bring the ethics of the family back out into the street."
Tufaro, a Roland Park developer making his first bid for political office, faces a monumental challenge Tuesday in a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 8-to-1.
Republican activists credit the successful 52-year-old businessman with running the most credible GOP mayoral race in 32 years. The last Republican elected Baltimore mayor was Theodore R. McKeldin, who left office in 1967.
Tufaro has re-established a Republican voice in the city by challenging O'Malley on crime, schools and city spending.
"I think he's run the best Republican mayoral race in recent memory," said Herbert C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor. "Very serious, very issues-oriented. He's done the city a service."
The residential developer has called for Baltimore to take a page from cities such as Indianapolis and Philadelphia and allow private companies to compete to deliver city services.
He has said that if he is elected, the savings achieved through making the city more competitive could help slash city property taxes by up to 40 percent.
"It's very interesting, the dialogue that is happening," said Odette Ramos, a founder of the newly formed Neighborhood Congress community group. "He's brought up a lot of things that we all need to face."
Tuesday's election will also begin the final weeks of the 12-year Schmoke era. The city's first elected black mayor will take a job with a Washington law firm after leaving office Dec. 7.
O'Malley and Tufaro have both said they would not keep Schmoke's Cabinet members, which includes men who have become household names in Baltimore over the past decade, such as Public Works Director George G. Balog and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.
Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who struggled for five years to significantly reduce the city homicide rate, has departed, taking a job with the Justice Department in Washington.
Tuesday's election will bring the first sweeping changes to city government in 12 years, including a new City Council president.
Current Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who finished third in the Democratic mayoral primary, will leave in December after 12 years on the council.
West Baltimore City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon will face Republican political newcomer Antonio Campbell in the council president race.
Incumbent Comptroller Joan M. Pratt also faces a challenge from a Republican, Charles U. Smith.
Dixon and Pratt are heavily favored to win, and their victories could set the stage for candidacies for mayor.
Perhaps the most interesting races will occur in the 1st and 6th Districts. Two Republicans, Joseph Brown Jr. in the 6th and Robert N. Santoni in the 1st, are making serious challenges to Democratic incumbents.
"Santoni is a well-known name, and he's put a lot of money into the race," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.
Voters will also have to consider a dozen ballot questions that include $41 million in loans for the city and a charter amendment that would give the next mayor a one-time, five-year term to make the next city elections coincide with the 2004 presidential race.