When City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch abruptly left office this year to take a job in the real estate industry, she pushed a trusted aide as her replacement.
Now Vernon E. Crider, a high school special education teacher in Harford County whose military service has taken him to Iraq, is battling four other Democrats as he tries to hold on to the 13th District seat in East Baltimore.
"What I'm doing now as a councilperson, I'm just turning it up a few notches," said Crider, who has served in the Marines and the Air Force Reserve. "I was out here steadily organizing for the councilwoman. That's what I do. I have a passion for working with people. And I want to see that the work continues on."
Crider, 43, is not without a political resume. Before becoming a councilman in April, he was Branch's legislative assistant, was a member of the Baltimore City State Central Committee and, in 2002, ran unsuccessfully for delegate in the 45th District.
He refers to Branch, who held the East Baltimore seat since 1991, as a "steady adviser" and says he "absolutely" calls her and asks questions.
Crider, who said he lives in Berea, said he is most concerned with remedying the abundance of vacant properties in the district between Belair Road and East Fayette Street east of Broadway. He said he is working on legislation that would further tax property owners on vacancies.
Crider, who raised more than $15,000 through mid-August, is not the top fundraiser in the race. Warren Branch, a public works inspector for the city who lives in Madison East End, has raised more than $20,000.
Branch, 46, who has been president of his neighborhood association and was elected to the Democratic State Central Committee, counts the city's first black mayor, Clarence H. Du Burns, as a mentor. He is not related to Paula Johnson Branch.
"I've been doing it all my life, helping folks. ... As a young kid growing up, I lived in the neighborhood where Clarence Du Burns lived. I would go to him and get advice from him. ... It's only fair I would give back now," he said.
Branch said it is necessary to pool resources from community groups to solve many of the district's issues.
"We need to pull together the neighborhood association, the churches, the businesses, the school principals and PTAs ... and [try] to formulate a plan for the entire district. ... I sort of figure, if we work together as a group or a team, we'll be able to change our district and make it like other districts."
Emmett Guyton, 38, said he is a mechanic with Trigen - the company that operates the city's steam operations - and said he is running because he believes the city can do a better job bringing resources to the neighborhoods.
"I want to help the socially disadvantaged and also improve the quality of life within the district," Guyton said, who is an ordained deacon at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church. "There are resources available that are not being used and folks in the district are not [currently] a high priority."
Several of the candidates in the race have been charged and, in some cases, convicted of crimes. Branch, for example, was charged with second-degree assault in 2001 and 2003, though the charges were dropped in one case and not pursued in another. Branch referred questions about the incidents to his attorney, who could not be reached for comment.
Guyton was found guilty of battery in 1991. The candidate said he has turned things around since the 16-year-old conviction and has learned from it.
Another candidate, Robert R. Stokes, was charged by the state prosecutor in 2004 with failing to file campaign finance reports. The charges were not pursued.
Questions have also been raised about residency, including about Crider. The councilman has maintained that he lives with his mother in the district, but property records show that he also owns a home on Kildaire Drive in Northeast Baltimore.
Stokes and another candidate, Cynthia A. Gross, did not respond to requests for interviews.
Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., who has been on the council for 20 years, is facing a challenge in the Democratic primary from Lawrence Jamaal Moses, who worked in the administration of former Mayor Martin O'Malley.
D'Adamo, who has been chairman of the council's Budget Committee for nine years, was a longtime supporter of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"Ehrlich was a personal friend of mine for 25 years," D'Adamo said. "Ehrlich is a friend. For me, it's my family, friends and politics, in that order."
D'Adamo is a political force when it comes to money. According to the mid-August fundraising support, he had raised $117,482. Moses has not filed campaign finance reports.
"They call you and you respond," D'Adamo said of his constituents. "I'm out there. So that's what people like to see. I get 30 to 35 e-mails a day, and I answer them all. They don't deal with my staff, they deal with me. You can't be around 20 years if you're not doing your job. If you're not doing your job, they throw you out of office real fast."
Moses, 49, of Gardenville is director of the office of community initiatives for the state Department of Human Resources. Previously, he was director of O'Malley's office of children and families for seven years.
During that time, he helped to implement Baltimore Rising, a youth mentoring program for children involved or predisposed to be involved in violent or delinquent behavior. The program, which began in 2000, formed partnerships with 45 churches throughout the city.
"I found a lot of success as far as working with community-based programs, and I believe through the City Council I can continue to help," Moses said.
The winner will face Brian H. Davis, a Republican, in the general election.
Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a councilman for 11 years, is being challenged by Democrats Ertha Harris and Frank William Richardson, who has not replied to requests for an interview.
The district stretches east of Interstate 83 to 30th Street and south to the Inner Harbor.
Young said he has much work to finish in his district, where he lives in Middle East. "I'm from East Baltimore, and I take great pride in being from East Baltimore, born and raised in East Baltimore, and I don't think none of the other candidates can boast to that," Young said.
Young, 53, recently has made waves by introducing a bill in the council that would forgive the interest and penalties on parking tickets if the violator agreed to make a 20 percent payment and enter a payment plan.
"I thought it was important," Young said. "How can a $12 ticket quadruple and turn into a three- and four-thousand-dollar ticket? I thought it was unfair. I wanted to make sure it wasn't a money-making or another type of tax where people were taxed unfairly."
He is also working on getting vacant properties in parts of his district such as Oliver, Greenmount West, Johnstown Square and East Baltimore Barclay developed.
"Most of them are owned by absentee landlords, and dealing with the court system and getting these owners to fix them up is a long, drawn-out process. And I'm looking out for ways to get people to develop them, so the city won't be held hostage," Young said.
Challenging Young is Harris, 48, whose perspective on the district is colored by an event that marred the city. She lives four houses from the site of the Dawson family firebombing. The family's home was burned by a drug dealer in retaliation for her calling police, leaving seven dead in 2002.
Harris is embarking on her third run for the council.
"I want to go back to the basic things that will pull a community up," Harris said. "I've been advocating on several of the initiatives like funding the schools. Why are there so much efforts directed at downtown and not uptown?"
Harris, a financial analyst in Bethesda, is a member of the Oliver Neighborhood Association and said she is also concerned with the number of vacant properties in the neighborhood.
"How did they get a building on the corner for $1.2 million and a garden, and people are still looking out at boarded-up houses?" Harris said, referring to the memorial to the Dawson family in their old home. "Then you go down the street and Johns Hopkins is taking houses. It's crazy."
Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.