Dixon's January 2010 decision to resign as part of a plea agreement to settle charges of perjury and embezzlement came as a surprise to the Rawlings-Blake team, who anticipated Dixon would exhaust every appeal before relinquishing her office.

"From that moment on, it was us being on roller skates," Parthemos says. "We had to let [residents] know we were prepared moving forward."

Rawlings-Blake and her top aides flew into action, assembling a transition team drawn from the city's top leaders and laying out plans to change the composition and tenure of the ethics board, in an effort to clear the atmosphere of scandal that clung to Dixon's City Hall.

Taking over an administration assembled by her predecessor presented its own set of challenges, as some agency officials chafed at new leadership.

"It's sort of like 'Wife Swap,' except the wives never go back home," quipped Councilman William H. Cole IV, one of Rawlings-Blake's closest allies on the council.

The city's finances have proved a constant challenge. To close a $121 million gap in the city's $1.2 billion budget, Rawlings-Blake reorganized agencies, laid off workers and pushed through a package of $50 million in new taxes. And, over vigorous protests from lobbyists and retailers, she became the only big-city mayor to pass a tax on bottled beverages last year.

Simultaneously, she tackled one of the city's persistent problems, the beleaguered public safety pension system, pulling off an overhaul that is estimated to save the city more than $100 million this year — but that sparked a public outcry and federal lawsuit from the fire and police unions.

It was a tough choice for Rawlings-Blake, who had previously been closely allied with the unions. The Fraternal Order of Police, now one of her most outspoken critics, hosted a fundraiser for her shortly before she became mayor.

"Once she sat down and saw the numbers, she realized this was what needed to be done for the city of Baltimore, even though the unions were calling her names and putting up billboards," Council Vice President Edward Reisinger III says.

"When she made that choice, I really had the utmost respect for her."

'Make it happen'

Recently, Rawlings-Blake brought Sophia to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to see an exhibit of recently unearthed artifacts of history's most famous female leader — Cleopatra.

Archaeologists had plunged into seas that swept over parts of Cleopatra's kingdom, hauling from the depths dozens of pieces of jewelry and statues with hauntingly expressive faces.

Some of the exhibition halls were filled with wavy blue light, representing the seas that had hidden these artifacts for millennia. Other rooms were dimly lit, resembling the inner chambers of a pyramid.

Mother and daughter tried on replicas of ancient jewelry in the gift shop, practiced rolling papyrus and studied sculptures of the god Osiris, with his crown of ostrich feathers, and his wife, Isis, goddess of motherhood and magic.

They gazed at statues that adorned Cleopatra's grand palace and fragments of papyrus inscribed with her decrees.

Rawlings-Blake snapped a photo of one display and saved it in her phone — a tattered sheet believed to have been written by the Egyptian queen's hand, the characters painted in bold brush strokes.

One word particularly struck the mayor: "ginesthoi," a Greek word that is roughly translated to mean, "Make it happen."

"That pretty much says it all," Rawlings-Blake says.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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