What to say about the seven-year tenure of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who handed off the baton today to Mayor-Elect Catherine E. Pugh?
What were her main accomplishments? Where did she fall short? Was her administration above board? How will she be remembered?
WYPR’s Sheila Kast asked those questions and more of The Brew’s Mark Reutter and former Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper in a wide-ranging discussion aired yesterday.
Both said the young mayor began with great promise and good ideas upon taking office in February 2010 after her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, stepped down amid a corruption scandal.
“She did clear up various aspects of the city budget with pensions and health care benefits,” Reutter said. “I think she did a good job in getting those costs under control and dealing in her earliest years with some serious budget deficits.”
But even before April 2015, when the in-custody death of Freddie Gray triggered protests, rioting and days of curfew in Baltimore, her popularity was waning, Kast said, pointing to The Brew’s reporting of her administration’s shortcomings. Five months later, in September 2015, Rawlings-Blake announced that she would not seek re-election.
What Went Wrong?
“Broadly speaking, she was never able to connect with the average voter,” Reutter said, noting that “it had to do in many measures with her personality that was seen as superior and a bit condescending.”
“Perhaps because she’s introverted,” Scharper speculated. “She’s never been someone who could be folksy, someone who could just walk into a crowd and find herself embracing a lot of people.”
Asked if Rawlings-Blake gets this critique mostly because she is a woman, Scharper said no. “In my honest opinion, I think her reservedness really cuts across gender lines.”
Other issues ensnared the mayor and served as major distractions, Reutter said, such as her clashes with other elected officials in City Hall, including “those weird battles with the comptroller” Joan Pratt.
He pointed to the mayor’s “lack of steadiness as an administrator,” noting that over seven years she had four chiefs of staff, three police commissioners, and four people heading the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT).
“The tremendous turnover of staff. . . undercut progress she was trying to make in other areas,” Reutter said. “So her administration became more and more muddled and her personality became more defensive. And I think the public picked up on that.”
Another management matter that the mayor ignored was an often unresponsive city bureaucracy. “A lot of city services, from road repaving to crime to water bills, have all sort of cascaded out of control” under a mayor more focused on personal loyalty than public accountability, Reutter said.
“The mayor’s office was much more concerned with hiding this through lack of transparency. . . than coming to grips with it,” he added.
The Two Baltimores
Infecting everything over the last few years, both Scharper and Reutter said, was City Hall’s inability to make progress in lifting up vast swaths of the city that are suffering from poverty, disinvestment, vacant houses and crime.
“West Baltimore is arguably in worse shape than it was in 2010,” Reutter said. The Vacants to Value program, touted by the mayor as one of her major accomplishments, has hardly made a dent in the problem, he said.
Discussing the mayor’s efforts to stimulate development in the city’s wealthy waterfront communities, Kast asked if Rawlings-Blake became “too cozy with developers.”
The same names of campaign contributors “kept popping up,” Scharper said, reminding listeners of a story The Brew broke about Rawlings-Blake’s trip to Las Vegas to perform a wedding service for City Hall’s two top registered lobbyists.
The administration’s closure of neighborhood recreation centers (while simultaneously promoting such frills as the Baltimore Grand Prix) “really rubbed people the wrong way,” Scharper added.
Speaking of the rec centers, The Sun’s former City Hall reporter said, “Those were something that people could walk across a couple of streets and get there. That was really painful for a lot of communities when their rec centers closed.”
Reutter agreed: “Those were one of the few things that these impoverished communities could cling to.”