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Ambitious Rawlings-Blake faces big challenge

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Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, the daughter of a powerful former state delegate, knew she wanted to pursue a career in politics at an age when most girls are playing with dolls. And within months of graduating from law school, she was elected to the City Council, where she earned a reputation for a terse, businesslike style and eventually rose to the council presidency.

Now, as Mayor Sheila Dixon prepares to step down as part of a plea deal in her criminal case, Rawlings-Blake, 39, is about to assume the city's highest office, in accordance with the city charter. She will take power at a turbulent time - the city faces a large budget shortfall and cuts to key services, a looming pension crisis and vacancies at the top of three agencies - and will immediately need to seek more funding in the General Assembly session.

While City Hall buzzed with news of the mayor's impending resignation yesterday, Rawlings-Blake spent the day holed up with top advisers and refused numerous requests for interviews.

In a statement, she said that despite the "difficult and sad time" the city and residents would "remain strong, rise to this current challenge, and continue to protect public safety and deliver essential services."

But she did not provide more specific information about the transition of power - Dixon is scheduled to leave office on Feb. 4 - or her goals as mayor.

Many veteran city leaders said that they had faith in Rawlings-Blake's skills, while acknowledging that the real test would come in office.

"Even though it has been a short time, I think she has performed pretty good in her current position," said former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who also served on the City Council. "Those abilities come once you have the job. You do what you do to prepare yourself."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has praised Rawlings-Blake as a knowledgeable leader, with a keen understanding of public safety issues, honed from years working in the public defender's office. She worked on his 1999 mayoral campaign in a "matter-of-fact and courageous way," he said recently, and lobbied the support of her father, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a long-time delegate who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee for more than a decade.

Since the mayor's trial began in November, Rawlings-Blake has publicly ducked questions on the possibility of succeeding Dixon, saying, "The work that each of us do as elected officials and public servants prepares us for leadership."

She has maintained her usual public schedule, presiding over the city's spending board and leading council meetings. Meanwhile, she has fought for two measures: one requiring pregnancy centers that do not give abortion referrals to post disclaimers, and another designed to transform city night life by allowing more businesses to offer live entertainment. Both bills were approved by the council and signed into law by Dixon in recent weeks.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who has worked closely with Rawlings-Blake on the Board of Estimates, described her as "very deliberate and thoughtful in her decisions." "I think she's a fair person, committed to the city and its citizens," she said, adding that the two occasionally butt heads but can "agree to disagree."

A longtime council member criticized Rawlings-Blake - who would be up for re-election in the fall of 2011 - for what he perceives as a lack of passion.

"She's got to have fire in her and I haven't seen that yet," said Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo. "She's a good person, but I just don't know if she's ready for the challenge." Rawlings-Blake was raised in Ashburton in Northwest Baltimore by her father and her mother, a pediatrician, and was introduced to her father's political world at an early age. A graduate of Western High School, she studied music and politics at Oberlin College. After graduation, she attended law school at the University of Maryland. She was elected to the City Council in 1995, and served as a public defender before becoming council president in 2007 - taking the position vacated by Dixon when she became mayor.

She and her husband, Kent Blake, who works for Comcast, live in the Coldspring area and have a young daughter.

As council president, Rawlings-Blake has been easy to contact and attentive to the needs of residents, council members said.

"She has availed herself to my 3rd District residents more than any other council president," said Councilman Robert W. Curran. Though he is an ardent Dixon supporter, he said he was looking forward to working with the new mayor.

Councilman William Cole IV, who is closely allied with Rawlings-Blake, described her as "very talented, very intelligent" and possessing a "strong leadership style." The month-long transition period should give her ample time to assume her new role in a "peaceful way that makes sense," he said.

The council president's office has been responsive to the concerns of council members, said Councilwoman Belinda Conaway. "I'm hoping with the new administration there will be the same level of mutual respect" as under Dixon, she said.

Among the challenges Rawlings-Blake will face as mayor is dealing with a $120 million shortfall that has been forecast for the 2010-11 budget year. She will have to fill positions heading the Health Department, Recreation and Parks, and the Aging Commission. And she will have to assess other high-profile positions such as police commissioner and fire chief. Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who is among the front runners for the council presidency - a position that will be selected by council members - expects Rawlings-Blake to retain many of Dixon's staffers. Of the transition, he said, "I don't think we'll see too much of a difference."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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