See How They Run: City Paper's guide to Baltimore's busy race for mayor

With incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake out of the running, Baltimore City's thundering herd of mayoral candidates has created an election season like none before. There are old pros and new blood, big money and bootstrappers. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon has emerged as an early front-runner, and that says a lot about how the city's politics work.

Dixon's voters are a fairly solid bloc. They want the "good" government they had before Rawlings-Blake came, and by "good" I (and they) mean traditionally and predictably corrupt in a small-bore and generally efficient way. The unspoken constituency here is for that kind of familiarity; that good-old-boy (or girl) rule-bending, job-getting, contract-letting un-system that has animated what's passed for public administration here since before anyone can remember. Audits of city agencies? Why, we don't even keep financial ledgers, let alone performance measures.

The top layer of nominally professionalized, inevitably "data-driven" bureaucrats usually has little idea of (or interest in) how things work at the ground level, and because most of the actual work of government is now being done by contractors—non-profit in the social-services realm and very much for-profit elsewhere—these managers are yet further removed from the relevant knowledge.

This is Baltimore. Grab the levers of power and they fall off in your hand. The mechanism is not that simple.

The way to know is to know. Like William Donald Schaefer knew, and like Du Burns knew. Know the people on the ground. Have them in your debt. Do for them and they do for you.

Baltimore doesn't have a "political machine," in the exact same way it doesn't have "organized crime." Instead of a party boss and ward heelers we have loose-knit family and social ties. Instead of having one or two criminal overlords, we have an ever-shifting network of corner crews, prison gangs, corporate robber barons and long-term family enterprises. The overlaps between these informal social pools are not insignificant. Together they compose the stuff the rest of us swim in and, just as the Chesapeake Bay is an always-changing mixture of sea and river water, Baltimore's socio-economic political system, too, is always murky and always moving. The tides in this metaphor are caused by people like Peter Angelos and John Paterakis; institutions like Johns Hopkins University and foundations. Big money can make big things happen the way tidal action and high winds can move a lot of water in the bay. But the water always seems to find its own level again soon after, and it forms itself around any new structures—and starts eroding them.

Dixon has established herself as a floater. It remains to be seen if anyone can sink her.

The candidate forums and the coverage of them demand snappy sound-bites. Candidates get only a few minutes to speak and answer questions, and never time to delve deeply into their proposals or to defend them on any practical basis.

Even still, the unwieldy field is a hopeful sign. Of the 29 candidates, none appears to have any open warrants. Only one (albeit the front-runner) has any significant criminal history. These are mostly serious, always sincere people with love for the city, a solid critique of its problems—well, except for those who are just plain loopy—and some good ideas about how to move forward.

Whoever wins next fall will have a larger pool of interested people on which to build their administration, and that is a good thing. They will also have to face a larger pool of increasingly knowledgeable critics. And that, too, is a good thing.

What follows is a series of candidate profiles. The field was too vast—and our resources too limited—to give every candidate equal measure of attention. But visit our website (and their own websites, if you choose) for more information on the candidates. Better yet, come to the March 10 debate City Paper is hosting with the Afro, WEAA, and the Morgan State University student paper, The Spokesman, to ask the candidates your own questions.

And if you're curious about where the candidates' money is coming from, check out our interactive map at citypaper.com to discover who is getting the big bucks from as far away as San Francisco, Dallas, and Miami or which Baltimore neighborhoods are backing which candidate.

The Baltimore Mayoral Debate, co-sponsored by City Paper, WEAA, The Afro, and the Spokesman, takes place on March 10, 7 p.m. at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center, 2201 Argonne Drive. the Baltimore Mayoral Forum, co-sponsored by City Paper and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, takes place the following week on March 16, 7 p.m. at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Avenue

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