As young men and women trickled into the back of a Mount Vernon bar, Calvin Allen Young III, a 28-year-old, first-time candidate for mayor, prepared to make his pitch.
The crowd at the networking event Thursday barely topped two dozen, but it was filled with up-and-comers, including Young, who is one of 13 Democrats competing in the April 26 mayoral primary.
The race boasts a formidable slate of hopefuls, including a former mayor, a state senator, two city councilmen, an attorney and a businessman.
With that competition, the remaining candidates have struggled to attract attention and money.
Young, a Baltimore-born engineer who graduated last year from Harvard Business School, acknowledged the long odds but was undaunted in his blazer, offering hugs, distributing fliers and exchanging phone numbers.
"When you look at the unrest and the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore doesn't need the old guard to come back," he said, before leaving to rub shoulders at another event. "I give the citizens of Baltimore an alternative. ... You don't have to settle."
With voter dissatisfaction high nationally and in Baltimore, Young is hardly the only candidate promoting his outsider status.
But that message is less successful when there is so much competition, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
In an opinion poll of likely Democratic voters taken last month for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore, lesser-known candidates — Young, police Sgt. Gersham Cupid, information technology support technician Tirell "Mack" Clifton, former sportswriter and bank operations vice president Patrick Gutierrez, researcher Cindy Walsh and nurse Wilton Wilson — failed to crack 1 percent support.
"For people who are not well funded, it sucks a lot of the air out of the room," Kromer said. "It might be a different story if there weren't so many viable top-tier candidates."
It is unusual for Baltimore to have so many people running for office, analysts said.
The protests and riots last April that followed the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered spinal injuries in police custody, created new political urgency that pushed many candidates into the race, analysts said.
Another reason for the bumper crop might be social media, which offers campaigns a less expensive way to spread their message, said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
"It's changed the dynamic of elections," Crenson said.
It would require a "mammoth upset" for one of the trailing candidates to win, even if polling might struggle to account for potentially higher-than-usual voter turnout, said Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. But he said those candidates have shaped the race with their ideas and issues, some of which are likely to be co-opted by others.
As they raise their profiles, some might be able to use the race as a steppingstone, he added.
Cupid, 28, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore and lives on Cold Spring Lane near Park Heights, said he decided to enter the race because he wants to see discussion of Baltimore's problems go beyond blaming police. He also supports police reform.
"Let's say we fix the Police Department ... it's still not going to stop crime. It just really frustrated me," he said.
"If I don't win, hopefully I'm in a position where I feel like I'm making a difference," he added.
Gutierrez, 43, of Taylor Heights said he has always been interested in public service and decided to run while attending a forum about police brutality last spring.
At candidates forums he has stressed early childhood education and the need for better management, citing his experience overseeing processing centers at Bank of America, where he started as a teller while in high school in Indio, Calif.
Gutierrez has raised nearly $17,000 and lent his campaign another $15,000 — well behind the election's major players. But he said he is encouraged by the reception he has received from undecided voters when knocking on doors.
"We go into a neighborhood ... and folks there initially have never heard of me," Gutierrez said. "The challenge is taking that message to enough people."
Walsh, 59, of Charles Village said outsider candidate messages are resonating in ways that are not reflected in the polls, thanks in part to the many public forums during this election cycle.
"That's very unusual," said Walsh, who also ran for governor in 2014 and supports police reform, departmental audits and bolstering local businesses in what she describes as a fight against neoliberal, Wall Street interests. "I've been invited to forums where the establishment politicians are almost shocked when they see me."
Clifton, 46, who lives in Gwynn Oak, has not attended forums but said social media enabled him to remain in the race after his wife's multiple sclerosis worsened. Online, he advocates for better customer service in city government and better police training, including high school recruitment and encouragement to seek a bachelor's or associate degree.
"I just want to get to a place where the city can start moving in a different direction because things really could be better," he said.
Young, who grew up in Hamilton, attended Polytechnic Institute and lives with his grandmother, has raised about $68,000 and hopes to top $100,000. His campaign emphasizes investments in small business, education and technology to improve city processes.
"The reality of having so many people in the race is it really fragments people and resources," Young said. But "this is just the beginning, and that's what everybody needs to know."
Wilson, a registered nurse from Jamaica, did not respond to requests for comment.