The first snowflakes whirled down less than 48 hours after Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was sworn in as Baltimore's mayor. Before a week had passed, two blizzards had walloped the city, dropping nearly 4 feet of snow.

Once a reticent legislator, Rawlings-Blake found herself guiding the city through the most massive snowfall in a century. She logged long hours in the cramped, windowless room that serves as the city's emergency operations center and, from a Humvee, surveyed streets studded with stranded cars.

In rare quiet moments, Rawlings-Blake wondered what she could have done to deserve an immediate crisis upon taking office.

"You start having those conversations with God: 'Reveal to me what I have done in my life that this is the punishment, Lord, because I can't figure it out,' " she says.

In sharp contrast with the recent blizzard in New York and New Jersey, Baltimore pulled through the storms relatively unscathed. While heavy snows have buried the careers of many politicians, the new mayor was generally praised for her response to the storm.

"It could have gone two ways," Rawlings-Blake says. "I had a chance to use all of the experience that I had had up to that point. You certainly don't want those kinds of tests, but it gave me a level of confidence. This is as bad as it gets, and I'm still standing. We're still standing."

Daughter of a much-loved state delegate and the youngest person to ever serve on the City Council, Rawlings-Blake is no stranger to elected office. But in more than a decade on the council, she maintained a low-key presence and offered little high-profile legislation. In her first years as council president, she was seen as little more than a rubber stamp for former mayor Sheila Dixon's policies.

But since becoming mayor, a new Rawlings-Blake has been revealed: poised, confident and crisply professional, unafraid of making tough decisions. She has cut city spending, pushed through a package of new taxes and gone head-to-head with the fire and police unions that were once her political allies.

"There's too much work to be done in the city to be satisfied not making the tough calls," said Rawlings-Blake. "The mayor's role requires quicker decisions, even when the stakes are high. You have to have a thick skin, but also be responsive. You don't always have to agree, but you have to act with integrity."

Those who have known Rawlings-Blake for decades say she has tapped into new reserves of energy and strength.

"Stephanie always took her job seriously, but when she became the mayor she ratcheted it up a lot," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke says. "She knew she also needed to be present to the city as a leader."

But potential challengers — former council colleagues, a former city planner and a state delegate are all considering a run for her job — say she lacks the sort of passion for the city that voters want to see in their mayor. For Rawlings-Blake, the challenge is to show that her cool demeanor is a strength, and not a liability, in managing the unending succession of crises that come through her door.

A dizzying pace

It seems the past 12 months since Rawlings-Blake took the oath of office following Sheila Dixon's resignation as part of her criminal plea have whizzed by at a dizzying clip. The mayor has coped with the largest budget shortfall in decades, a summer of record heat, flooding, a tornado that decimated scores of homes, and a series of deadly and destructive fires.

"We're just waiting for the locusts, and then I think we've got it all covered," says Kaliope Parthemos, Rawlings-Blake's deputy mayor for economic development and a lifelong friend.

Through all the challenges of the past year, Rawlings-Blake has preserved her characteristic equanimity, choosing her words cautiously and rarely revealing emotion. She punctuates her comments with wry humor, flashing a signature sideways smile.

"I've never been for the show," Rawlings-Blake says. "I've been more for the work. I care about the substance of what needs to be done."

Rawlings-Blake has honed a new image after 15 years in political office. She has emerged more polished, appearing at ease with passers-by who ask to pose with her for photographs and with the gaggle of cameramen who tail her at events. At the age of 40, she has trimmed down substantially, swapped bulky sweaters for sleek suits and crafted a look that is coolly professional.

While political consultants say her new look will serve her well in the coming election, it was her 7-year-old daughter Sophia who inspired her to lose weight.