SRB's decision: painful but correct

When SRB took over for Dixon, she was the right leader at the right time. Now she's not.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was the right person at the right time when Sheila Dixon was forced to resign as mayor. She was calm, steady and deliberative, a tonic to the scandal that had gripped Baltimore, and she methodically took on reforms that were vital to the city but for which she got little credit. This spring, when Freddie Gray died and the city erupted into rioting, exposing the injustice, anger and despair that has long raged just below the surface in many Baltimore neighborhoods, she was the same person — to a fault. Baltimore needed, and needs, a bold and dynamic leader who can heal its wounds, knit the community back together and set a new course. We mean no insult, but that is not who Ms. Rawlings-Blake is. During the last five months, people across the city realized that, and evidently, so did she. Mayor Rawlings-Blake has always seemed to take pride in making difficult decisions she judged to be in the best interests of the city — the influence, no doubt, of her father, the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings — and there may be no greater example than her choice not to run for re-election. Painful though it must be for her, it is the right decision for Baltimore.

The crisis the city faced in 2010 was about more than Ms. Dixon's theft of gift cards meant for needy children. It was about a sense in the public that Baltimore's elected officials were out to serve themselves and not the people. Ms. Rawlings-Blake counteracted that not only with her sober demeanor but with a series of ethics reforms designed to address exactly the ways in which her predecessor had breached the public trust. She went on to tackle a range of un-sexy issues that were nonetheless of vital importance for the city: reforming a bloated municipal pension system, modernizing the city's health insurance benefits, diversifying revenue streams and trimming the city payroll. She not only bothered to figure out what the city's long-term fiscal shortcomings were but put together a plan to address them. The 2011 election, when she sought the mayor's office in her own right, was a showcase of her approach to governance. Many of her rivals promised radical cuts to Baltimore's property tax rates, but she argued for a slow and steady approach. She won, and she delivered; Ms. Rawlings-Blake has cut property taxes by more than any predecessor in modern times.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake is not an easy and natural politician, though, and that showed through at times. She was able to work with a large coalition to secure support in Annapolis for Baltimore's $1 billion school construction program, but that was something of an aberration. She had little influence over Baltimore's legislative delegation, as evidenced by her inability to gain support for police reforms this year, and she increasingly lost sway over the City Council — she hasn't even been able to get a hearing on a relatively modest plan to sell some parking garages to pay for new rec centers. And her relationship with Gov. Larry Hogan quickly devolved into unnecessary and self-destructive sniping on her part. But her inability to navigate the political world was clearest in what is now a years-long dispute with Comptroller Joan Pratt over the modernization of Baltimore's municipal phone system — a perplexing ego clash that may have cost the city millions.

The considerable skills she brought to the office might well have outweighed those shortcomings if not for the death of Freddie Gray and its aftermath. The city was desperately in need of reassurance, but she was invisible in the crucial hours when rioting spread out of control and hunkered down in the weeks that followed. She was slow to call for help from the National Guard, slow to ask the Justice Department to launch a full civil rights investigation into the city police, slow to deploy body cameras on officers and slow to fire her police chief as murders hit historic highs. The time for gradualism and deliberation was over, but Ms. Rawlings-Blake did not change with the circumstances.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake's announcement will likely prompt more candidates to join the race and will have the beneficial effect of forcing them to focus on providing competing visions for the city, not debating the incumbent's record. Ms. Rawlings-Blake is also freed. She spoke of a desire to keep her energies devoted entirely to managing the city through a difficult time, not courting donors and running a campaign. We hope this decision will do more than give her extra time at City Hall. We hope she will use her remaining 15 months in office to act with a new urgency and boldness. Baltimore needs nothing less.

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