“You play the cards you’re dealt,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Friday, pointing to the April rioting, curfew and subsequent crime spike as the reason she had to bow out of the 2016 mayor’s race.
Surely, the events that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody are a politician’s worst nightmare.
But to cast this “bad hand” as the chief reason the mayor decided not to seek re-election ignores the political trouble Rawlings-Blake was in prior to the 25-year-old West Baltimore man’s arrest.
Her longtime fundraiser and strategist Colleen Martin-Lauer was having a tough time raising money for the mayor’s April fundraiser at the Hippodrome before the April 27 riot, sources say.
The event was canceled, and Martin-Lauer subsequently “fired” the mayor and is now the fundraiser for City Councilman Nick Mosby, who is widely expected to get into the mayoral race.
With Mosby and a crowded field of would-be successors aspiring to assume leadership of a battered city, it’s worth looking at the deeper-rooted reasons for the once-seemingly-invincible mayor’s political vulnerability and sagging support.
Many of those problems can be traced to the 45-year-old Rawlings-Blake herself.
Capable of warmth and wit in some settings, Rawlings-Blake often comes across publicly as aloof and disengaged. It’s a quality some are inclined to forgive, a matter of style over substance, they say, on which she is unfairly judged.
“I always thought that she was handicapped by her personality, which wasn’t her fault,” lawyer John Murphy said over the weekend. “That was the personality she was born with.”
At the press conference announcing her decision not to run, the mayor herself suggested there is sexism in the conventional wisdom that she doesn’t appear to enjoy her job or relish connecting with the average citizen.
“I don’t remember many smiles,” she said referring to her late father, state delegate Howard “Pete” Rawlings. “He was serious about his job and so am I.”
And yet whatever the mix of perception and reality to this impression, it’s been a problem for Rawlings-Blake, infecting not just her public image with citizens and potential voters but her ability to manage, lead and inspire.
A Remote Boss
City Hall is rife with quiet resentment about her remote rule.
Never during the riot or immediately afterwards, sources say, did the mayor call her top staff together en masse. But weeks later, about 80 high-level officials were summoned to the Board of Estimates hearing room by the mayor’s chief of staff, Kaliope Parthemos, who chided them for not following the dress code and potentially embarrassing the administration with casual attire on Fridays.
After that, the mayor appeared at the meeting, where her appointment in San Francisco as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors was announced. The mayor beamed as everyone applauded and the meeting was over.
Declining Business Support
The closed-off administration has alienated key constituencies.
Rawlings-Blake’s support in the business community, for instance, was flagging long before April, though until the riot no one there would have predicted her re-election was anything but inevitable.
From lawyers, tech entrepreneurs, developers and others, there have long been complaints of an “iron wall” of staff keeping them at arm’s length from the boss.
Likewise, the business community’s key link to City Hall – the Baltimore Development Corporation – became paralyzed after the appointment of Brenda McKenzie. Herself an aloof manager, McKenzie left the job and was succeeded by former City Councilman William R. Cole IV. Hindered by staff turnover under McKenzie, Cole has made halting progress in turning the office around.
Neighborhood leaders seeking to be heard on quality-of-life problems or disputes with developers, utilities, city agencies or liquor interests also complain of having little access.
It would be hard for any mayor to live up to the level of personal engagement former mayor William Donald Schaefer had with the job – seemingly taking every pothole personally – but Rawlings-Blake comes across to many in this regard as his mirror opposite.
At Board of Estimates meetings, where the mayor and other top officials decide each week on tens of millions of dollars in city spending, Schaefer would typically berate bureaucrats for perceived screw-ups or ruminate about “people” and “caring.”
By contrast, Rawlings-Blake rarely says a word, instead taking the opportunity to check her cellphone and impassively sip a large cup of coffee.
Rawlings-Blake also, in the end, lost support from the black community, where it never was that strong to begin with. When Sheila Dixon announced her plan to run for mayor again, that support withered even further.
Ferocity That Sometimes Paid Off
As the youngest City Council president in Baltimore’s history and the daughter of a powerful politician, Rawlings-Blake’s ascent had a logic to it.
In the wake of the Dixon corruption scandal in 2009-10, the somber-voiced technocrat seemed like just what the city needed.
It was a persona she owned with a fierce pride – “I’m here to make the tough choices,” she would proclaim in the face of even mild criticism. “I have thick skin. I can take it.”
Indeed, she brought that ferocity to bear on some of the city’s more pernicious problems, succeeding in controlling spiraling pension costs and helping advocates push through a massive $1 billion school construction package in Annapolis.
And that thick skin no doubt served the mayor well in deflecting the nasty, at times racist, comments that came her way.
But her steely resolve rubbed citizens the wrong way when applied to costly projects like the Grand Prix and ill-conceived “reforms” such as closing inner-city rec centers.
And when the wheels of government seemed to fall off, citizens lost patience even more.
Erroneous water bills, a flawed speed camera system that issued motorists erroneous tickets, rutted roads and bursting water mains that never seemed to improve during her five-and-a-half years as mayor despite massive infusions of local and federal dollars.
Then there was all the “study money” that flowed from the administration to out-of-town consultants studying such matters as Circulator bus routes and sewer hookups that should have been the purview of city employees.
When the media spotlight turned to the fact that no city agency had been audited for decades, Rawlings-Blake’s resistance to accountability undermined her credibility with an electorate that pays more than double the property tax rate of surrounding jurisdictions and ever-escalating sewer and water charges.
Rawlings-Blake never grasped the level of frustration with poor city service and the need for transparency and meaningful reform. Perhaps her regular travels outside Baltimore as a rising star in the Democratic Party left her out of touch with the average citizen.
Slow on Police Misconduct
Likewise on justice issues, the mayor was tin-eared when it came to citizen complaints of police misconduct and brutality, despite routinely approving cash settlements to victims of beatings and arbitrary arrests.
Last December, or five months before Freddie Gray’s fateful trip in a police van, she vetoed a City Council bill calling for body cameras on officers. She said she had a better way and appointed a committee to study body cameras.
Now Baltimore police say they won’t be able to fully institute a body camera program until 2017.
The spike in homicides – not just since the April riot but in the preceding two years – added to the perception of the mayor’s poor management skills.
A popular and effective police commissioner (Frederick H. Bealefeld III) was replaced, for no apparent reason, by an outsider who was just as abruptly jettisoned by the mayor after the unrest.
Ironically, Rawlings-Blake managed to alienate the police union at the same time she ineffectively coped with the anger of black Baltimoreans that exploded after Gray’s death.
Sticking to the Status Quo
As for the kind of economic development strategies that could lift the city, with its shrinking population and anemic economy, the mayor struggled here, too.
After decades of City Hall tax breaks for downtown and waterfront projects had failed to trickle down and benefit the vast swaths of the city mired in poverty, many in Baltimore were ready for a new approach.
But with generous tax subsidies for Harbor Point and other upscale projects, Rawlings-Blake maintained the status quo in spite of vigorous protests by religious and civic groups.
It was this instinctively reactive governance that was exposed in April when Rawlings-Blake seemed to freeze in the face of citizen anger that exploded into opportunistic looting, leaving it to a neophyte governor to restore civil order to Maryland’s largest city.
– Ed Gunts also contributed to this story.