Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's growing role in Democratic politics has given a boost to her national profile — and to her frequent-flyer miles.
A leader with the Democratic National Committee and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Rawlings-Blake has visited Panama with Vice President Joe Biden and attended summits in Utah, New York and Louisiana. She stumped for Cory Booker as he ran for Senate in New Jersey and rallied young Democrats in San Antonio. She also went to three conferences in Las Vegas.
In all, Rawlings-Blake and her security detail made two dozen out-of-state trips in 2013 — about two a month — for a total of 73 days away. The mayor's supporters applaud her travel, saying she is representing the city well before groups across the country. But some question whether it's possible to govern as effectively from out of town.
"We use a great deal of scrutiny to determine when and if it's necessary for me to travel," Rawlings-Blake said. "The vast majority of trips are declined because it would take me away from critical city business. We have been very clear with both the DNC and others that my first priority is the city."
She is increasingly called upon to serve as a national spokeswoman for the party. Twice in recent months, she's appeared on NBC's "Meet The Press," defending President Barack Obama's health care program and criticizing Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
"Everyone in the political community has noticed that she's been chosen for a higher profile, and presumably she's being groomed for higher office," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "If you're a mayor, you don't end up repeatedly on 'Meet the Press' without powerful people suggesting she's an appropriate Democratic spokesperson. ... It's obvious that she is highly articulate, stays on message, and projects a great image."
Florida Rep. Deborah Wasserman-Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called Rawlings-Blake a "rising star" in the party. She said the mayor has "headlined" events for Democrats in Tennessee, Texas and Nevada.
"She's been a phenomenal addition to our leadership team," Wasserman-Schultz said. "Baltimore benefits because of the relationships the mayor is able to develop, and the access she has to decision-makers. The sky is the limit for Mayor Rawlings-Blake."
Some in Baltimore, however, say the mayor should stay in town more often and attend more community meetings about local issues. For instance, in Morrell Park, where state and city officials support construction of a $90 million CSX Transportation project that many in the community oppose, residents have repeatedly asked Rawlings-Blake to attend meetings on the subject.
Wendy Roberts, vice president of the Morrell Park Community Association, doesn't understand why the mayor can travel to so many states but can't attend an association meeting.
"I would love her to come to Morrell Park to one of our meetings about CSX," Roberts said. "We wish she would give us insight. We're still saying no to CSX in Morrell Park. It's too residential."
Dale Hargrave, president of the New Greenmount West Community Association, said city taxpayer dollars should not be used for mayoral travel.
"If it's coming out of her pocket, I don't have a problem with it," he said. "If it's coming out of our pockets, I got a problem with it."
Rawlings-Blake's out-of-state trips in 2013 cost city taxpayers about $32,000 — most of it for the police officers who travel nearly everywhere with her, according to city records reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.
Travel costs for the mayor's executive protection unit were $25,676. That includes their expenses to accompany her on personal vacations — to Los Angeles, Atlanta and Rehoboth, Del. — for which taxpayers paid about $3,000 for her security.
The city paid $6,689 for Rawlings-Blake's travel and lodging, including her trips to Utah, Washington and Las Vegas for meetings of the Conference of Mayors, of which she is vice president.
Overall, sponsoring organizations covered her costs for about half the trips. For instance, the Democratic National Committee, of which she is secretary, flew Rawlings-Blake and her security team to at least six different events in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Antonio and New York, records show.
Rawlings-Blake said the traveling doesn't interfere with her work as mayor of Baltimore, adding that she attended 600 community events and meetings last year.
"I am in regular contact with my staff while away on travel, and I've made sure that clear lines of authority are set in place in my absence to make sure that city business continues as efficiently as possible," she said. She said her work with the Conference of Mayors has helped her to win grants for childhood obesity initiatives, lead paint removal and financial literacy in Baltimore.
Political observers say Rawlings-Blake is traveling more than her immediate predecessor, Sheila Dixon, but not doing as much international travel as Gov. Martin O'Malley did while mayor or Kurt L. Schmoke before him.
O'Malley traveled to Germany, Ireland and Australia when he was mayor of Baltimore. His Berlin trip was to study a magnetic-levitation train prototype that officials are still considering to connect Baltimore and Washington. He also watched the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, a trip he said at the time would help Baltimore if it were to host the games.
Schmoke traveled to Cuba, India and Sweden while mayor. He killed a staff plan to pay for a Bermuda vacation as a Christmas present, according to news accounts at the time.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran says it's a benefit to Baltimore to have Rawlings-Blake interacting with officials across the country.
"She puts the best face of Baltimore forward," he said, adding that her appearances can counter negative impressions some people may have of the city from watching "The Wire."
But Councilman Carl Stokes said the mayor's travel "seems a little high." He added: "I think the greatest place for a city elected official is at home, frankly, but there are certainly events and rationale for leaving the city."
Rawlings-Blake is the city official with the most travel this year, according to city records. Schools CEO Tisha Edwards took 10 trips, housing commissioner Paul Graziano traveled five times, transportation head William Johnson took four trips, and police chief Anthony W. Batts traveled three times.
William Donald Schaefer, who served as mayor of Baltimore from 1971 to 1986, established the tradition of mayors traveling to recruit businesses to the city. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector says those trips helped bring economic development to Pratt Street and around the Inner Harbor.
Spector called the $32,000 Rawlings-Blake spent on travel last year "the cost of doing business" and a boost for the city.
The travel has sometimes come at inopportune times. During a particularly violent weekend in June, Rawlings-Blake, her spokesman and her chief of staff were all out of state at various events. Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi handled questions from the news media — and was fired after saying city officials were "pretty satisfied" with their efforts against violent crime.
Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, defended the mayor's travel. Summers said that while some might want Rawlings-Blake to be in town to address day-to-day issues such as crime spikes or broken water pipes, those jobs are better handled by her subordinates.
"It's not like the mayor is going to be in a patrol car driving around the city, fighting crime," Summers said. "The mayor is the face of the city. It's her responsibility to travel and showcase Baltimore's assets. It would be more troublesome if she wasn't getting asked to go to these functions."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.
Here are the costs to the city of some of the trips Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took last year. Figures include travel expenses for the mayor's security detail.
•Jan. 17-20: U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Conference, Washington, D.C., $4,400
•Feb. 1-4: Super Bowl, New Orleans, $6,000
•April 20: Black Public Administrators Conference, Atlanta, $500
•May 18-23: International Council of Shopping Centers Conference, Las Vegas, $3,400
•Aug. 1-3: U.S. Conference of Mayors Summer Leadership Meeting, Salt Lake City, $2,000
•Nov. 14-15: Meeting at John Jay College on criminal justice issues, New York, $800
Source: Baltimore City recordsCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun