Their finishing kick

The Baltimore Sun

They set alarm clocks to stake out early risers on street corners and at subway stops. They waved and paced and gripped the hands of people on their way to work. They pressed stickers onto work shirts and marched signs around busy lunchrooms. They wiped sweat from their faces over the long, humid afternoon and then chugged caffeinated beverages, hoping to keep it up as long as they needed to - because it was all the time they had left.

Candidates hoping to attract Baltimore's vote in today's city primary wrung everything possible from the waning hours of the campaign yesterday. For the choices voters make today - who will be mayor and who will fill out the City Council - will not only make or break people's political careers but will shape city policy for the next four years, influencing everything from the way we fight crime to how much we pay in taxes to where new homes and stores might appear.

From the spotlight of the mayor's contest, where Mayor Sheila Dixon, who's held the job for the past eight months, is battling City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and five other challengers, to the near-dead heat for the City Council president's post, to the scramble to represent Baltimore's 14 council districts, candidates were out in force yesterday, winding down their message and urging supporters to get to the polls.

"It's important our citizens get out and vote," Dixon said before a phalanx of TV cameras late yesterday morning. "Every vote counts. This election is going to determine the direction this city goes."

City election workers put the finishing touches on polling places yesterday, installing machines and sending around technicians to test them. Election director Armstead Jones said he's got plenty of judges - even Republicans, who can be hard to corral in the Democrat-heavy city - ready to go.

"It will run smoothly, very smoothly, there's been a lot of time put into this," he said. "We didn't wait until the last minute."

State officials projected that roughly 30 percent of the city's 331,987 registered voters will cast ballots. Though not exactly inspiring, that number would be typical, as recent city primaries have had trouble crossing the 40 percent threshold.

Before 7 a.m. yesterday, Mitchell was outside Johns Hopkins Hospital, greeting custodians and other workers at shift change. He lunched at Cross Street Market with police and firefighter union officials, visited the Edmondson Village shopping center and hung out at a Metro stop to catch voters headed home.

Tony DeFranco, Mitchell's deputy campaign manager, said his candidate wanted to leave people with one concise message: "that there is a clear difference in this election."

While her main challenger made his rounds, Dixon waved to drivers along Erdman Avenue, dropped in on a North Baltimore condominium and knocked on doors in Waverly. She also reveled in an endorsement from the powerful Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

Outside the New Shiloh Baptist Church, Dixon, in a tangerine-colored suit, smiled amid a throng of dark-suited pastors as they called on their congregants to "unapologetically" support her and City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"We're a city in need of leadership that's credible, accountable, productive and creative," said the Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Upton and the ministerial alliance's president. "They've got the experience, the energy, the skills and the ability to make Baltimore a place where people can feel safe, sound, secure and settled."

Rawlings-Blake, ready for a long day in Aerosoles pumps, which are supposed to be comfortable, said she was pleased, not nervous, by the too-close-to-call status of her race. She thought it could energize an electorate otherwise threatened by the apathy of predictability.

All of the campaigns promised intense efforts today to get out the vote, with volunteers assigned to call people, canvass neighborhoods and haunt polling places.

As the lunchtime rush crowded Lexington Market, one of the city's choicest campaigning spots, Rawlings-Blake, a large Starbucks in hand, nearly bumped into her challenger, Michael Sarbanes, in shirtsleeves and with his wife and three-year-old daughter. The rivals kept a polite distance as they glad-handed their way through the market.

"My plan is to win tomorrow," Sarbanes said into a reporter's microphone. When the reporter then asked if he would sleep tonight, the candidate replied, "They're long days."

Despite the exertion, not to mention the thousands of dollars spent on ads and commercials that have clogged the airwaves for months, some voters, like Sylvester Harcum, are still waiting for an epiphany.

For mayor, "It's kind of a toss-up," the West Baltimore man said.

After meeting Sarbanes at the market, Shelby Hall of Park Heights remarked, "He look like he could make a difference ... but I haven't decided."

Shirley Cook sat with her daughter at a table at the market after teams Sarbanes and Rawlings-Blake stormed past in a flurry of signs and slogans. They left her with a Sarbanes sticker on her blouse and her hands filled with brochures for Rawlings-Blake and Dixon.

"I just pray that whoever wins," the Cherry Hill woman said, "will do better for the city."

Sun reporter Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

Baltimore's primary election

Polls will be open today from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

To find your polling location, call Baltimore's Board of Elections at 410-396-5550 or go to

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