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Rawlings-Blake says she's leaving Baltimore in better shape than she found it

"I did ... the best job I could," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said of running Baltimore.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake led Baltimore through monster snowstorms, an earthquake, a derecho and a riot. She was mayor for the city's lowest murder rate in decades — and its highest. She's been cheered, and she's been booed.

After seven years leading a city fraught with challenges, Rawlings-Blake says she has few regrets as she prepares to step down Dec. 6. Despite the persistent violence, she argues she's leaving Baltimore in better shape than when she took over.

"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about 'Oh, this could have been better,'" Rawlings-Blake said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. "I did what I know is the best job I could do on any given day."

The outgoing mayor — who was elected once but served the length of nearly two full terms — rose to national prominence as she climbed into leadership ranks of the Democratic Party. She became a staple on Sunday morning talk shows and has been applauded for her fiscal management of Baltimore.

But her administration's inability to prevent the rioting and record levels of violence that followed the death of Freddie Gray last year is seen by many as a black mark on her record as Baltimore's 49th mayor.

Even Rawlings-Blake's critics acknowledge that she improved the city's financial outlook. Her administration pushed through overhauls of health care, leave and pension systems for municipal workers, cutting the city's $750 million structural deficit by about half. In her fifth year in office, financial services firm Standard & Poor's raised Baltimore's bond rating to AA — the highest in years.

At the same time, her administration pushed through tax cuts for homeowners and tax credits and other incentives to spur development.

As the national economy improved after the Great Recession, so did Baltimore's. In September, the city's unemployment rate was 5.8 percent — down from 11.3 percent her first month in office. During that time, the city's economy added about 15,000 jobs, according to state labor statistics.

For the past two years, Baltimore's economy has grown faster than that of any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

"There are cranes all throughout the sky," said Arsh Mirmiran, a partner with the Caves Valley development firm, which is overhauling an industrial area near the city's sports stadiums. "Baltimore has become a more desirable place to live, work and play."

While many around the country might know Rawlings-Blake from the rioting of April 2015, Mirmiran believes history will remember her tenure as one of positive growth for the city.

"I believe, personally, when people look back at the Rawlings-Blake administration, they won't remember the one or two days in April of last year," he said. "They will remember Baltimore's renaissance really gained steam during the Rawlings-Blake administration.

"It's been an incredibly successful time for Baltimore."

Others don't think history will be as kind. Former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who hosts "The C4 Show" on WBAL radio, said Rawlings-Blake started off strong as mayor but faltered in her later years.

She took office vowing to restore ethics to city government after the forced resignation of former Mayor Sheila Dixon amid a scandal over Dixon's theft of gift cards. Rawlings-Blake was a steady hand and successfully navigated her early challenges in office, he said.

"She came in replacing a mayor who left in disgrace," Mitchell said. "She inherited a budget deficit. We had the worst blizzard Baltimore City has ever seen. She was immediately tested with a crisis and did things immediately to give people a sense of confidence."

But, Mitchell said, Rawlings-Blake got distracted as she rose in prominence.

Rawlings-Blake was elected to her first full term in 2011. In 2012, voters approved moving city elections to the same year the nation chooses a president. The change gave the mayor and other city officials an extra year in office. In 2013, Rawlings-Blake became secretary of the Democratic National Committee, just as President Barack Obama was beginning his second term.

Then, in April 2015, the riot exposed deep problems that had been allowed to fester in the city, Mitchell said.

"Pressure either makes diamonds or it crushes coal," he said. "When the riot hit, it exposed her."

In June of that year, Rawlings-Blake was made president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She said she would use the position to advocate for fixes to Baltimore's systemic problems.

A poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun in November 2015 showed more than 70 percent of likely Democratic voters would not vote for her in 2016.

"I've been entrusted to be a steward for the city. I was not entrusted to win a popularity contest," Rawlings-Blake said.

She says she's tried to put the city on a better path.

Even so, some of her signature initiatives remain unfinished. She set a goal of attracting 10,000 families to Baltimore over 10 years, steadily cutting taxes for owner-occupied homes through 2020 and eliminating the city's $750 million structural deficit.

About half of the structural deficit has been eliminated, and two-thirds of the tax cuts have taken effect. But increasing the city's population has been more difficult. Since 2010, Baltimore's population has grown by about 1,000 residents.

Rawlings-Blake notes that even meager population growth is an improvement over the negative trend Baltimore experienced for half a century. Since World War II, the city has continually lost population to surrounding counties.

"Baltimore is now a top city for millennial population growth," Rawlings-Blake said. "To me, that sends a very strong signal not just about where we are today, but where we're headed for the future."

Longtime City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said the mayor will have to rely on incoming Mayor Catherine E. Pugh to finish some of her plans.

"She has taken on reforms no other mayor attempted to do," Spector said of Rawlings-Blake. "She just didn't stay long enough for them all to happen."

Pugh has indicated she plans to continue several of Rawlings-Blake's initiatives, including the tax cuts for owner-occupied homes.

Mixed results

Politicians are often judged by how they deal with crime, jobs and schools.

Rawlings-Blake's record on crime is mixed. With former Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld leading the agency, homicides dropped to the lowest number in years —— 197 in 2011.

But Bealefeld, who was hired by Dixon, resigned. Rawlings-Blake replaced him with Anthony W. Batts, who promoted himself as a "reformer." Crime remained low at the start of Batts' term but spiked after the riot.

Some blamed Batts' agency for mishandling a clash with students at Mondawmin Mall, arguing that police made the situation worse by shutting down buses the kids needed to get home, thereby sparking the riot.

Afterward, arrests in Baltimore plummeted and shootings rose quickly. The city finished 2015 with 344 homicides.

Rawlings-Blake fired Batts and replaced him with Commissioner Kevin Davis, but the killing has continued. For the second year in a row, the city is on pace for 300 homicides. Before that, the city hadn't experienced 300 murders in a year since 1999.

Longtime community activist Ralph Moore Jr. said the fallout over the Gray case highlighted concerns about the city and its mayor.

"She started off strong," he said. "When the uprising hit, it brought into focus a lot of people's realization that things were not moving so well in the city.

"It was not just in Sandtown. People were unhappy all over the city. People were unhappy about water bills. People were upset about the housing department. The citizenry was unhappy."

Despite the high crime, Rawlings-Blake said she believes city officials have used the right strategies, including the anti-violence programs CeaseFire and Safe Streets.

"The progress we were able to achieve is fragile," she said of the spike in crime. "There's no guarantee from one year to the next you'll have the same level of success."

Spector, a Rawlings-Blake ally, argues that the homicides are part of a national crime wave in large cities, and won't be the mayor's defining legacy.

"It wasn't just Baltimore," she said. "There were many cities that succumbed to this."

Big and small businesses

The crime wave hasn't scared away business interest in Baltimore.

Rawlings-Blake's administration helped attract large employers, such as Amazon and Horseshoe Casino, and provided financing packages for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's Port Covington development and Michael Beatty's Harbor Point project.

Though it drew less attention, the administration also created a "microloan" program that gave loans to small businesses. Such loans supported, for instance, both The Charmery ice cream shop and Mindgrub Technologies.

Other financial decisions didn't go as well. A highly touted Grand Prix race was canceled after three years amid struggling finances. The administration was also slow to complete voter-mandated audits, and several remain unfinished. And residents expressed outrage over spiking water bills.

Rawlings-Blake defended water bill rate increases as necessary to pay for upgrades to the city's infrastructure, one of several decisions she says were unpopular but fiscally responsible.

On a recent walk around the Greenmount West neighborhood, Rawlings-Blake took note of visible signs of progress. Once-vacant properties have been revitalized. Rawlings-Blake said that's because of Vacants to Value, a widely recognized city program that offers incentives to redevelop abandoned properties.

"That didn't happen by accident," she said. "All the investment you see is a direct result from Vacants to Value. It makes me proud. We've done some really major things."

While the economic recovery hasn't extended to the poorest parts of East and West Baltimore, University of Maryland officials have noticed marked improvement on the west side of downtown.

In 2010, that part of the city was in ruins, recalls Jay A. Perman, president of the Baltimore campus.

"It was a story of decay," Perman said. After the university teamed up with Rawlings-Blake's administration, he said, "all kinds of activity" has followed.

Schools and rec centers

The mayor also led a contentious overhaul of the city's recreation centers. She closed and privatized centers that were underperforming while building new centers and renovating others.

At the same time, she successfully lobbied the General Assembly to approve a $1 billion construction plan to replace or renovate dilapidated school buildings.

Kaliope Parthemos, the mayor's chief of staff, said the new rec centers and schools send a strong message.

"When you see the new school construction plan and the new recreation centers, when you see all the new buildings and cranes in sky, it's a tremendous amount of progress," she said. "We've created jobs. We've created opportunity. We've created momentum in the city, and we have really worked to grow Baltimore."

Rawlings-Blake says she feels honored simply to have had the chance to try to improve her city.

"There are very few people in this world who wake up for even a day and go to a job where they feel they're making a difference," she said. "To be able to have done it for so long, I'm humbled by the experience I've had. And I'm extremely grateful."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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