Laura Vozzella: Rawlings-Blake's different style may be what city needs

Sheila Dixon had her faults, but I'll say one thing for her: She wanted to be mayor. Dixon had passion for the city and politics, sometimes too much of it, having famously brandished a shoe in a heated debate in City Council chambers.

The woman who will replace her can come off as cool to the point of aloof. Where Dixon got in people's faces, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has kept them at arm's length, as when she chastised a woman at a public hearing in April for calling her by her first name.

She told the woman to address her as, "Madame President. Council President Rawlings-Blake. Mrs. Rawlings-Blake."

"We're not friends, so - " Rawlings-Blake added.

Rawlings-Blake is going to need friends, and probably a friendlier public persona, if she wants to hang onto the job of mayor. And it's not entirely clear if she does.

At Rawlings-Blake's first public appearance since it became clear the keys to City Hall were coming her way, a reporter asked: "Do you want the job?"

Her answer was that she was focused on preserving public safety and services and that to comment on anything else would be "in poor taste." It was not the time, she said, "to talk about political ambition."

I think she misunderstood the question. I don't think the reporter was inquiring if she'd long dreamed and schemed to lead the nation's 20th largest city, but wondering if she wants to do it. She has not always given the impression that her heart is in City Hall.

Style and physical bearing might, unfairly, play into that perception. Her voice is low, her movements slow compared to the high-energy cycling queen and the weight-lifting bandleader who came before her.

Dixon spoke bluntly and inarticulately, but there was a spark there. Rawlings-Blake, a lawyer, speaks smoothly but in such a slow, measured manner you want to administer CPR.

Pete Rawlings was a large, lumbering man, but that came across as gravitas in an older guy who was also a mathematician, a state delegate and the head of the House Appropriations Committee.

Rawlings-Blake, 39, did seem energized Thursday, at the City Hall news conference called to announce her transition plans. She spoke forcefully and gravely, perhaps more than the circumstances required.

"Yesterday I immediately spoke directly to police Commissioner [Frederick] Bealefeld and Fire Chief [Jim] Clack to emphasize the importance of protecting and maintaining public safety during this difficult time, and that these protections must continue without interruption," she said.

It almost felt as if Rawlings-Blake were leading Baltimore out of the rubble of a terrorist attack, not the aftermath of a tacky scandal.

She was walking a tightrope, to be sure; she could hardly appear happy about her new gig without seeming to dance on Dixon's political grave. And, yet, one of her comments could be read as a dig at the outgoing administration: "Today, I have asked the administration to take steps to ensure the preservation of all public records, including e-mails and other documents."

Had a great municipal shredding scheme just been derailed?

Perhaps more startling: Rawlings-Blake said Baltimore would be getting to know her and she would be "getting to know you." This from someone who has been in public office for 15 years. She has been council president, a citywide office, since 2007.

Supporters say Rawlings-Blake is more interested in government than politics. They say she works behind the scenes and simply doesn't seek attention.

If she really is a wonk who tries diligently but quietly to solve the city's many problems, Baltimore can survive, even thrive, with her at the helm.

Not every mayor needs to jump on the back of a garbage truck, cycle through the city or play in a rock band. We've had outgoing and look what that got us: A guy who brought energy and innovation but also a burning desire to move on; a gal who connected well with people but too well with developers.

Maybe aloof is just what we need.

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