On a sweltering evening this week, two men in crisp button-down shirts weaved through a gathering of neighbors in Butchers Hill, shaking hands, patting backs, and chatting about property taxes and education reform.
Some residents listened raptly, clutching fliers from the men, former city planning director Otis Rolley III and Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors Vice President Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, who are challenging Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for her office. But many were surprised to learn that the city's top job is up for grabs.
"To be honest, I haven't started following the candidates," said Matt Schultz, 28, echoing many across the city.
About a hundred days from today, Baltimoreans will choose a Democratic nominee for mayor — the candidate, in this heavily Democratic town, all but guaranteed to run the city for the next four years.
Other than a smattering of window signs and bumper stickers, there are few clues around the city that a major election will take place in a little more than three months, on Sept. 13.
But that's about to change.
As Baltimore settles into a hot, muggy summer, Rawlings-Blake and the men and women who plan to challenge her will turn up the heat on their campaigns. They'll be working the crowds at ethnic festivals and neighborhood meetings, knocking on doors and, as summer progresses, airing ads on radio and television.
"For the voters, it's about the summertime," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Voters don't start paying attention until really close to the election."
While Rawlings-Blake boasts a hefty fundraising lead and endorsements from some of the state's political heavyweights, her challengers aspire to oust her by reaching out to voters.
"I don't think money is going to be the thing to win this campaign," said state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who plans to announce her bid for mayor Monday. "It's going to be the heart and soul of the people that will win this."
Pugh — and other declared or likely candidates Rolley, Landers, City Councilman Carl Stokes and Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr. — note that Rawlings-Blake was not elected mayor but ascended to the position because Sheila Dixon resigned as part of a plea deal to settle criminal corruption charges. They hope that a summer of hard campaigning can garner enough votes to shake her from office.
"I'm going to campaign like crazy all summer long," said Landers, who has brought his message of lowering property tax rates to festivals and farmers' markets in recent weeks.
"At the end of the day, the election is won by whoever connects with the voters," said Rolley. "No matter how much money she spends, no matter if [Gov. Martin O'Malley] or the governor's brother" — Peter O'Malley, who became Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff last month — "are behind her."
But Rawlings-Blake, who is the daughter of a powerful state legislator and who helped out with campaigns since early childhood, plans an aggressive campaign herself.
In the past two weeks, she has unveiled online ads that highlight achievements in education, policing and neighborhood development and that close with a confident pronouncement: "I'm Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and I'm the mayor of Baltimore."
Next week, she will mark the opening of her campaign headquarters in Charles Village with a cookout and rally for volunteers. She already has endorsements from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and the local branch of the health care workers of the Service Employees International Union, who constitute an army of potential volunteers.
Rolley says Rawlings-Blake's contributions and endorsements are a sign she is "more of the same," a product of a political machine that benefits wealthy developers at the expense of residents. He wants to help smaller businesses develop, and devote equal resources to growth in neighborhoods and the downtown area.
"They can very aggressively fundraise for a campaign, but they don't seem to have the same ability to fundraise for youth jobs, and it directly shows what their priorities are," he said.
Rawlings-Blake characterizes her opponents' rhetoric as "that old game of pitting one community against the next."
"My track record shows that neighborhoods are a priority," she said, noting that she streamlined the city's process for selling vacant homes and created incentives to attract new homeowners.
Norris, the UMBC political scientist, predicts that with Rawlings-Blake's political influence and campaign funding — she had raised $840,000 when reports were released in January, more than a half-million dollars more than any other candidate — she will "win handily."
He expects Rawlings-Blake to capture more than half the vote, with opponents nipping small segments of the population.