Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose once-bright political future dimmed this spring with the death of Freddie Gray, shocked the city Friday with the announcement that she will not run for re-election next year.
The 45-year-old mayor's every move has drawn heightened scrutiny since Gray was fatally injured in police custody in April and the city erupted in flames. She said she wanted to take election politics out of the decisions she must make to help the city recover from the riots and prepare for the trials of the six police officers accused in Gray's death.
Speaking at a brief news conference at City Hall, the Democrat said the time she had been spending on her campaign was taking away from the work needed to help the city.
"The last thing I want is for every one of the decisions that I make moving forward — at a time when the city needs me the most — to be questioned in the context of a political campaign," Rawlings-Blake said before a bank of television cameras.
"I knew that that I needed to spend time, the remaining 15 months of my term, focused on the city's future and not my own."
She had planned a celebration Saturday to open her campaign headquarters. At the announcement Friday, she spoke of her love for Baltimore.
"I am so grateful for the opportunity I have had to serve," she said. "I am grateful to be a part of what I know is the renaissance of an amazing city."
She made her decision only in the last several days, aides said, but they knew her heart wasn't in a campaign. She often canceled time scheduled for fundraising calls and felt uncomfortable courting supporters while so much work was left to do at City Hall.
Rawlings-Blake still has 15 months in office. She announced no plans to seek another office. She didn't endorse any of the candidates running to replace her.
The announcement immediately shook up the Democratic primary race, which for decades has determined the city's mayor. Candidates and prospective candidates said they would now re-evaluate their strategies.
Radio host Clarence Mitchell IV, a former state lawmaker, said Rawlings-Blake should be recognized for her contributions to the city.
"We have to remember that this mayor did not initially run for this office," Mitchell said. "She came in a very difficult time and she was a steadying rudder for a very long time. Today is a day not to be critical of the mayor. Today is a day to give her credit."
A 15-year member of the City Council, Rawlings-Blake became mayor in 2010 when Sheila Dixon resigned amid a corruption scandal. She won election to the office in 2011.
During her tenure as mayor, unemployment has dropped from 12.1 percent to 8.2 percent and the city added about 12,000 jobs. She shepherded a plan to secure $1 billion for new school construction, opened the city's first new recreation center in 10 years and cut property taxes to the lowest level in decades.
The city saw both the fewest homicides in decades and the most. Homicides dropped to 196 in 2011, the lowest number since 1977. And when 45 people were killed in July, that became the deadliest month in the city in at least 45 years.
The mayor gained a reputation as a fiscal hawk for negotiating new schedules for the fire and police departments, reforming the pension plan and cutting the city's $750 million structural deficit in half.
She was also developing a national profile, taking leadership positions in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Democratic National Committee, visiting the White House and appearing frequently on the Sunday morning network talk shows.
But after the unrest of April, many asked whether she could win re-election. On the day Gray was buried, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting. Rawlings-Blake was not visible during the first hours; that evening, she appeared to clash with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan over their response.
The mayor agreed this week to pay a $6.4 million settlement to Gray's family. Coming before the trials of the officers, the agreement further strained relations with the city's police union.
She also clashed with the General Assembly over the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, and with City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young over how to fund the construction of new recreation centers.
In recent weeks, Dixon, State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and City Councilman Carl Stokes announced plans to challenge her in the Democratic primary next April, and other expressed interest.
Todd Eberly, an political science associate professor at St. Mary's College, said the reason for her decision was clear.
"She said she would rather govern than campaign," Eberly said. "But in the end, she decided she would rather quit than be fired."
The decision reminded some older Baltimoreans of Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, who announced in 1971 that he wouldn't seek re-election. Speculation began soon after the 1968 riots that he wouldn't run again.
Rick Moore voted for Rawlings-Blake in 2011. The Mount Vernon man was aware that she had been criticized for her response to the riots, but was nonetheless surprised to hear she wouldn't be on the ballot again.
"People didn't like the way she handled that," he said. "I thought it would blow over."
But Bea Robinson, who lives in Sandtown-Winchester, asked how much any mayor could have done with the challenges of the past five months.
"She looks like she was stressed out, anyway," Robinson said. "She did all she could. She can't do it all herself."
Hogan said he admired Rawlings-Blake.
"It takes courage and strength to lead one of America's great cities, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stood up and has served the city she loves over the course of two decades," Hogan said in a statement.
He said he valued his relationship with the mayor and would continue to work with her "to make Baltimore a better and stronger city."
Young spoke of the mayor's "tireless service" to the city.
"I'm sure her decision was reached after careful consideration," Young said. "I respect her desire to spend the final 15 months of her term focusing on Baltimore's recovery."
Stokes said he was surprised by the announcement.
"It gives her a chance to not think so politically at this point and to consider the city first and make what she thinks is the best decision," Stokes said. "It had to be a very difficult decision for her to make."
Not all the reaction was as positive.
"I guess she realized her mismanagement of the city in the past several months made her un-electable," Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said in a statement.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran said he became suspicious when he stopped by Rawlings-Blake's campaign office in Remington earlier this week and found it empty.
"There were no signs up anywhere outside. The place was closed up," said Curran, who had planned to support the mayor's re-election. "I've been doing elections a long time. Two days before a campaign headquarters opens you would have signs."
Rawlings-Blake told supporters she plans to host an event Saturday to thank them. The public is invited from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at what was going to be her campaign headquarters at 210 W. 28th St.
As a politician and a leader, Rawlings-Blake has been criticized for what some see as a lack of emotion in public. Asked about her demeanor during the news conference, she invoked her father, the late Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings.
"The challenge for being a woman in this position is, just like Ginger Rogers said, 'You have to be good as Fred Astaire, but you have to do it backwards and in high heels,'" Rawlings-Blake said.
"I don't hear a lot about elected officials that are men talking about whether they smile a lot," she said. "My dad was in elected office my entire life. I don't remember many smiles, and nobody commented about it.
"He was serious about his job, and so am I."
Still, her eyes welled and her voice quavered as she spoke of the city's future.
"We need to focus on being one Baltimore," Rawlings-Blake said. "I pledge to be energized, and dedicated for the next 15 months."
Baltimore Sun reporters Doug Donovan, Scott Dance, Jessica Anderson, Catherine Rentz, Natalie Sherman and Luke Broadwater and research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.