Elder C.W. Harris was strapped to a lawn chair as early voting took place in this city's tense mayoral primary.

His lawn chair, in turn, was tethered to an AC unit on a narrow rooftop in West Baltimore. By leaning out - carefully - he could look over the blocks that had been aflame with rioting exactly 51 weeks earlier.

"Vote!" the 66-year-old pastor periodically hollered down to the residents of Sandtown-Winchester. "Vote me off this roof!"

One year after the violence that followed the death of Freddie Gray, and one week before the city would select its next leader, the pastor of Newborn Community of Faith Church had climbed up with a tent, a port-a-potty and a pledge: He wouldn't come down until at least 500 of his neighbours had gone to the polls for early voting.

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"We cannot be ignored anymore; we have to take part in the process," Harris said, leaning back under the shade of a beach awning and gesturing towards some of Baltimore's poorest and most frustrated citizens. "If something doesn't change, they are going to tear this city apart."

His rooftop vigil was part of what Harris called "the craziness," a year that started with an uprising, led to the incumbent mayor deciding not to run for re-election and is ending with a chaotic campaign of more than a dozen candidates vying to run a city that remains deeply troubled.

The winner of Wednesday's Democratic mayoral primary, almost certain to be elected come November in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore, will take office with police and black residents still wary of each other.

The city is braced for the trials of the six officers charged in Gray's death and still struggling to slow its soaring homicide rate - 344 killings in 2015 and a 16 per cent jump so far this year over last year. More than 16,000 houses sit vacant and public schools rank at or near the bottom of many state measures.

Harris and other activists say they don't know if there's a saviour in the field of candidates that includes a disgraced former mayor, a millionaire investor, multiple city council members and a nationally known Black Lives Matters leader. The pack bloomed to nearly 30 after incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced in September that she wouldn't seek a second term.

"It's been a circus," said Harris, who won't say who he is supporting. "I just have to be hopeful that God will raise up somebody who will have the humanity to say 'Enough is enough.' "

In recent weeks, a clear front-runner has emerged: Catherine Pugh, a state senator from West Baltimore, has pulled ahead with 31 per cent, according to the most recent poll by the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore. Her nearest rival, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, logged 25 per cent in the early April poll.

No other candidate had more than 9 per cent. DeRay Mckesson, the activist who gained national prominence as a protest leader in Ferguson, after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, polled at under 1 per cent.

Dixon is making a comeback attempt after being forced from office in 2010 for allegedly misappropriating gift cards intended for needy families. As part of a plea deal, Dixon stepped down, paid US$45,000 to charity and performed 500 hours of community service. While many Baltimoreans say that they remember her as a capable leader, she has been unable to shake the taint of scandal in most parts of the city.

"People think both [Pugh and Dixon] would be competent mayors; the big issue is that Sheila has the conviction," said former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore. "Without that, she would be the clear front-runner."

Dixon acknowledged that the scandal still dogs her attempt at electoral redemption. Campaigning at the Maritime Industries Academy, an early polling site in East Baltimore, she encountered opponents and supporters.

"I voted for her last time, but I feel like she needs to move on now," said Hilda Snipe, a 60-year-old retiree who had just cast a ballot for Pugh.

"I voted for Sheila," said Phyllis Mitchell-Alexander, a baker. "All of them do it; she just got caught. She was a good mayor."

Dixon spoke to all comers, hearing them out on her personal failing, then peppering them with ideas for her next term: giving the mayor more power over schools and expanding civilian review boards in the police department. Her sunglasses glinting, she talked fast, a Baltimore native who came from a poor neighbourhood to get an MBA from Johns Hopkins University, rose to become president of the city council and eventually the city's first female mayor.

Dixon said that the race is still fluid, Pugh's support is soft and her own followers are more committed. It is often noted that when Dixon appeared at Freddie Gray's funeral last April, she was greeted with a standing ovation.

"I didn't expect that," she said in a quieter voice. "But it did reaffirm for me that the people still support me."

Newborn Community of Faith Elder C.W. Harris. Photo / Washington Post
Newborn Community of Faith Elder C.W. Harris. Photo / Washington Post

Analysts, though, say Dixon's backing may be fatally limited.

"She ran into a ceiling at 25 per cent," said Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "She's got a core of support in West Baltimore, but there are a lot of voters who can't see pulling the lever for someone who was convicted on corruption charges."

Pugh has been better able to expand to other parts of the city from her base in the African American neighbourhoods she has served for three terms in the Maryland Senate. Among other things, she is familiar in many neighbourhoods as an early morning jogger. (At 66, the rail-thin former marathoner still logs 32km a week when she's not campaigning.)

The Philadelphia native came to Baltimore for college and earned an MBA from Morgan State University. She was once president of Strayer Business College (now Strayer University) in Baltimore, leaving her with contacts to milk across the city.

"People have spoken well of her," said Schmoke. "She has a reputation for integrity."

That reputation has come under fire in recent weeks as the race has taken a nasty turn. Her opponents have accused Pugh of trying to buy votes by passing out chicken wings and ice cream sandwiches to potential volunteers and then busing them directly to early voting stations. One Democratic candidate, lawyer Elizabeth Embry, released an analysis showing that Pugh's mayoral campaign had taken donations from lobbyists with business before the state Senate Finance Committee.

Pugh - who became a familiar presence during the riots, wielding a bullhorn and urging young people to leave the streets - described herself as a someone who doesn't travel with a political entourage.

"I owe nobody nothing," she said. "The greatest thing will be walking into that office and being able to focus squarely on the people."

Mckesson and two volunteers were going house to house on Culver Street, an African American neighbourhood on the West Side. He wore the same L.L. Bean backpack, embroidered "DeRay," that he had worn as an undergraduate at Maine's Bowdoin College. He wore the ever-present puffy blue vest he made famous during the Ferguson protests.

Mckesson pointed his phone at himself and beamed a live update to his 39,000 followers on Periscope.

"We're out here dropping off lit. People aren't home from work yet," he said, before heading up another walk.

"Hey, I'm DeRay and I'm running for mayor," he said to three older voters sitting on a narrow front porch. He hurried through a list of his national superlatives: one of Fortune magazine's 50 greatest leaders; meetings with President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"You might have seen me on the Colbert show," he said.

"How old are you?" asked Vivian Jackson, 68, a retired state worker.

"Thirty."

"Hmm," she said, looking both sceptical and impressed. When Mckesson moved on, Jackson said she had not heard of him before. She is not one of his 339,000 followers on Twitter.

"I don't have Internet," she said.

Mckesson has gained national support for his brash bid to run Baltimore. But local activists say they aren't surprised his candidacy has languished in a city that runs on relationships.

"We didn't really know him," said Ray Kelly, a community organiser for the No Boundaries Coalition, a front-line advocacy group in West Baltimore. "Mayor of Baltimore is not a starter job."

Harris was able to come down from his roof after four days.

Five hundred Sandtown-Winchester residents cast ballots within a week of the polls opening, more than double the rate in 2014. Early voting has surged across the city, due in part to interest in the presidential primary and the restored right of ex-offenders to vote.

Harris called it a start.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I'm a preacher. I have to be."