Dwarfed by the looming seal of a troubled city, a group of nearly a dozen candidates crowded on the City Council dais, shoulder to shoulder, taking turns explaining why they should be the next mayor of San Bernardino.
There was the retired coach who said he could whip the city into shape like the boys on his wrestling team. The developer who wanted to make it easier to build. The real estate broker running on a platform of prayer, transparency in government and turning a languishing shopping mall into the world's largest skate park.
And there were the members of the City Council. One simultaneously fighting to hold onto her council seat in a recall vote; another who would be forced to bow out of the mayor's race and resign his council seat days after the forum. He would be forbidden to hold office after pleading guilty to lying on campaign finance documents.
They've all stepped forward at a rough time: The city of about 213,000 fell into bankruptcy, struggling with costly pension obligations as its tax base evaporated. Crime has risen, businesses have fled. A recall effort has brought two council members and the city attorney to face a vote.
And then, in an apparent coincidence, on the same day last month, two councilmen were charged in separate cases in different jurisdictions. One of them, Chas A. Kelley, resigned immediately; the other, despite calls to step down, is running for reelection.
"This moment is pivotal," said Matt Korner, who started technology companies before deciding to enter politics this year. "The city and region is either going to flourish or die in this moment."
Despite the problems, 10 candidates are vying for votes Tuesday to replace two-term Mayor Patrick J. Morris.
Aside from Korner, the candidates are: developer and former two-time candidate Rick Avila; retired high school coach Richard Castro; city public works employee Draymond Crawford; accountant Carey Davis; City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson; City Councilwoman Wendy McCammack; rail analyst Henry Nickel; and real estate broker Karmel Roe. There's also a write-in candidate: Concepcion Powell, a business development consultant and founder of the San Bernardino-based U.S. Hispanic Women Grocers Assn.
"You have all the ingredients of a city in decline," said Nickel, who works for the Riverside County Transportation Commission. "We're looking for new leadership.... We need some fresh faces and some fresh ideas."
Davis, another political novice, said: "It is definitely a race and a fight to change the political environment."
There have been a slew of forums for candidates to lay out their ideas. Campaign signs clutter intersections, and a flurry of mailers have been sent out. But candidates say it has been a challenge to get their name and message out in a city with notoriously low voter turnout. "That's been a huge mountain to overcome," Davis said.
Candidates and civic groups have also worked to recruit new voters and encourage more participation. It's critical to educate residents so they "know they have to be part of the process to restore our city, realize they have a stake in the city government," said Van Johnson, a nine-year member of the council. "They play a vital role."
Most of the candidates and campaign observers expect a runoff, and many predict that McCammack is poised to lead the pack, even if she loses her council seat in the recall vote. Davis — who hopes to apply his years of experience in financial services to righting the city — is also viewed as a top contender, bolstered by an endorsement by the San Bernardino Sun newspaper.
The runoff would be held in February.
"I feel I have a good shot because my record has been consistent," McCammack said, disputing critics who say that as a member of the council for 13 years, she contributed to the city's decline.
She has portrayed herself as a voice of opposition during her time on the council and is advocating a crackdown on code enforcement and deadbeat landlords and ensuring the city delivers services to property owners.
"I'm sick and tired of outsiders dumping on this city," she said. "I'm sick and tired of a certain set of residents who just don't seem to care. If this city's going to survive, everyone has to care."
Some have turned away from backers such as special interest groups that could help them raise money and garner votes. Korner has taken contributions of $100 or less; Roe said she has prayed that she doesn't receive any endorsements so she's not beholden to anyone but God and the will of the people.
Nickel admitted his chances were slim from the beginning and is thinking beyond Tuesday's vote. He's already hedging his bets with plans to enter the special election for Kelley's seat.
Roe's confidence, however, is unflappable.
She has printed thousands of posters and plastered signs across the city. She believes she has gotten traction. The would-be "mayor for prayer" also said she has gotten confirmation from above.
"The Lord said, 'Get up, Karmel. This is your year,' " Roe said. "I actually know I won the election, the Lord has told me."
With that in mind, she said, she has gone ahead and written her victory speech.