Weathering the storms with Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

The first snowflakes whirled down less than 48 hours after Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was sworn in as Baltimore's mayor. Before a week had passed, two blizzards had walloped the city, dropping nearly 4 feet of snow.

Once a reticent legislator, Rawlings-Blake found herself guiding the city through the most massive snowfall in a century. She logged long hours in the cramped, windowless room that serves as the city's emergency operations center and, from a Humvee, surveyed streets studded with stranded cars.

In rare quiet moments, Rawlings-Blake wondered what she could have done to deserve an immediate crisis upon taking office.

"You start having those conversations with God: 'Reveal to me what I have done in my life that this is the punishment, Lord, because I can't figure it out,' " she says.

In sharp contrast with the recent blizzard in New York and New Jersey, Baltimore pulled through the storms relatively unscathed. While heavy snows have buried the careers of many politicians, the new mayor was generally praised for her response to the storm.

"It could have gone two ways," Rawlings-Blake says. "I had a chance to use all of the experience that I had had up to that point. You certainly don't want those kinds of tests, but it gave me a level of confidence. This is as bad as it gets, and I'm still standing. We're still standing."

Daughter of a much-loved state delegate and the youngest person to ever serve on the City Council, Rawlings-Blake is no stranger to elected office. But in more than a decade on the council, she maintained a low-key presence and offered little high-profile legislation. In her first years as council president, she was seen as little more than a rubber stamp for former mayor Sheila Dixon's policies.

But since becoming mayor, a new Rawlings-Blake has been revealed: poised, confident and crisply professional, unafraid of making tough decisions. She has cut city spending, pushed through a package of new taxes and gone head-to-head with the fire and police unions that were once her political allies.

"There's too much work to be done in the city to be satisfied not making the tough calls," said Rawlings-Blake. "The mayor's role requires quicker decisions, even when the stakes are high. You have to have a thick skin, but also be responsive. You don't always have to agree, but you have to act with integrity."

Those who have known Rawlings-Blake for decades say she has tapped into new reserves of energy and strength.

"Stephanie always took her job seriously, but when she became the mayor she ratcheted it up a lot," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke says. "She knew she also needed to be present to the city as a leader."

But potential challengers — former council colleagues, a former city planner and a state delegate are all considering a run for her job — say she lacks the sort of passion for the city that voters want to see in their mayor. For Rawlings-Blake, the challenge is to show that her cool demeanor is a strength, and not a liability, in managing the unending succession of crises that come through her door.

A dizzying pace

It seems the past 12 months since Rawlings-Blake took the oath of office following Sheila Dixon's resignation as part of her criminal plea have whizzed by at a dizzying clip. The mayor has coped with the largest budget shortfall in decades, a summer of record heat, flooding, a tornado that decimated scores of homes, and a series of deadly and destructive fires.

"We're just waiting for the locusts, and then I think we've got it all covered," says Kaliope Parthemos, Rawlings-Blake's deputy mayor for economic development and a lifelong friend.

Through all the challenges of the past year, Rawlings-Blake has preserved her characteristic equanimity, choosing her words cautiously and rarely revealing emotion. She punctuates her comments with wry humor, flashing a signature sideways smile.

"I've never been for the show," Rawlings-Blake says. "I've been more for the work. I care about the substance of what needs to be done."

Rawlings-Blake has honed a new image after 15 years in political office. She has emerged more polished, appearing at ease with passers-by who ask to pose with her for photographs and with the gaggle of cameramen who tail her at events. At the age of 40, she has trimmed down substantially, swapped bulky sweaters for sleek suits and crafted a look that is coolly professional.

While political consultants say her new look will serve her well in the coming election, it was her 7-year-old daughter Sophia who inspired her to lose weight.

"We were somewhere with the family, and I just remember her looking around and saying, 'Why are so many people in our family fat?' " Rawlings-Blake says. "I thought, this — the way we were living — didn't have to be my daughter's reality. I could fix it."

Rawlings-Blake says she slimmed down after she got honest with herself about her eating habits, especially at evening meetings.

"I kept saying, 'I don't know why I'm not losing weight. I'm not eating breakfast. I'm not eating dinner,' " she says. "But I wasn't eating one dinner, I was eating five. By the time I made it from one event to another, I had eaten two days of calories."

Her sleeker look brings political advantages, says Councilman Robert W. Curran, who, like Rawlings-Blake, was first elected to the council in 1995.

"To be a good leader, you have to look good, too," Curran says. "I hate to say it, but that's part of leadership. I don't think she'd be the leader she is today if she hadn't gotten in control of her weight. She was able to take command of her own physicality, and then show she could take command of the city."

Rawlings-Blake says the exigencies of her job leave her little time to contemplate — or consciously construct — an image. But undoubtedly, the pressures of the role shape the mayor, as she, in turn, leaves her mark upon the city.

She has become accustomed to hearing her decisions vigorously debated and, at times, disparaged. She has stepped into the role of the city's chief ambassador, visiting the White House on several occasions and being selected for the advisory board of the National Conference of Mayors. But she must also serve as the city's voice in times of great grief — for example, consoling family members of the four police officers who have died in recent months.

On the evening she was sworn in as mayor, Rawlings-Blake found herself at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. An officer patrolling a Northwest neighborhood was struck by a bullet in the arm and needed emergency surgery. Rawlings-Blake visited the officer and his family while those close to her gathered for a dinner at The Wine Market celebrating her new office.

"Her whole family is there — her husband, her mother, her aunts and uncles, senior staff. And she wasn't there," Parthemos says. "We ate the dinner without her."

It was the first of many sacrifices that Rawlings-Blake would make in her new role, as she balanced her responsibilities to the city with her life as wife, daughter and mother. Family life has become an intricately choreographed routine, and she relies heavily on her husband and mother to bring structure to Sophia's days.

Family time

It's 7:30 p.m. on a recent Monday, and Sophia, bundled in a pink fleece jacket, tugs Rawlings-Blake toward a back booth at Alonso's on Cold Spring Lane. The mayor's mother, Dr. Nina Rawlings, settles into the booth and describes how Sophia has recently grown interested in family history, inquiring about great-aunts and great-uncles.

A bright and lively second-grader at Mount Washington Elementary, Sophia bubbles over on the importance of the food pyramid, the difference between horizontal and vertical lines, and the height and weight of the WWE wrestler known as Big Show.

"Can you eat another chicken tender, pretty girl?" Rawlings-Blake asks as Sophia trails off. Then, seeing the girl's eyelids flutter closed, she wraps an arm around her. "You can fall asleep on me."

As Sophia nestles in the crook of her arm, Rawlings-Blake explains that neither she nor her husband, Kent Blake, an intake coordinator at Johns Hopkins Hospital, have time to cook on weekdays. The family dines at Alonso's a couple of times a week.

"This is about as close to family dinner as we get" during the week, she says. Often her siblings, Lisa Rawlings, a program director at the University of Maryland BioPark, and Wendell Rawlings, who runs an engineering

company, as well as aunts, uncles and other members of their large, extended family gather here, playing word games with Sophia.

Blake, tall and soft-spoken, says he's grown accustomed to his wife's whirlwind schedule. The couple dated in college and then reunited several years later, after Rawlings-Blake had joined the council.

"He's extremely understanding," Rawlings-Blake says. "Because he's laid-back and takes life as it comes, he's not stressing me out."

A new mayor

Dixon's January 2010 decision to resign as part of a plea agreement to settle charges of perjury and embezzlement came as a surprise to the Rawlings-Blake team, who anticipated Dixon would exhaust every appeal before relinquishing her office.

"From that moment on, it was us being on roller skates," Parthemos says. "We had to let [residents] know we were prepared moving forward."

Rawlings-Blake and her top aides flew into action, assembling a transition team drawn from the city's top leaders and laying out plans to change the composition and tenure of the ethics board, in an effort to clear the atmosphere of scandal that clung to Dixon's City Hall.

Taking over an administration assembled by her predecessor presented its own set of challenges, as some agency officials chafed at new leadership.

"It's sort of like 'Wife Swap,' except the wives never go back home," quipped Councilman William H. Cole IV, one of Rawlings-Blake's closest allies on the council.

The city's finances have proved a constant challenge. To close a $121 million gap in the city's $1.2 billion budget, Rawlings-Blake reorganized agencies, laid off workers and pushed through a package of $50 million in new taxes. And, over vigorous protests from lobbyists and retailers, she became the only big-city mayor to pass a tax on bottled beverages last year.

Simultaneously, she tackled one of the city's persistent problems, the beleaguered public safety pension system, pulling off an overhaul that is estimated to save the city more than $100 million this year — but that sparked a public outcry and federal lawsuit from the fire and police unions.

It was a tough choice for Rawlings-Blake, who had previously been closely allied with the unions. The Fraternal Order of Police, now one of her most outspoken critics, hosted a fundraiser for her shortly before she became mayor.

"Once she sat down and saw the numbers, she realized this was what needed to be done for the city of Baltimore, even though the unions were calling her names and putting up billboards," Council Vice President Edward Reisinger III says.

"When she made that choice, I really had the utmost respect for her."

'Make it happen'

Recently, Rawlings-Blake brought Sophia to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to see an exhibit of recently unearthed artifacts of history's most famous female leader — Cleopatra.

Archaeologists had plunged into seas that swept over parts of Cleopatra's kingdom, hauling from the depths dozens of pieces of jewelry and statues with hauntingly expressive faces.

Some of the exhibition halls were filled with wavy blue light, representing the seas that had hidden these artifacts for millennia. Other rooms were dimly lit, resembling the inner chambers of a pyramid.

Mother and daughter tried on replicas of ancient jewelry in the gift shop, practiced rolling papyrus and studied sculptures of the god Osiris, with his crown of ostrich feathers, and his wife, Isis, goddess of motherhood and magic.

They gazed at statues that adorned Cleopatra's grand palace and fragments of papyrus inscribed with her decrees.

Rawlings-Blake snapped a photo of one display and saved it in her phone — a tattered sheet believed to have been written by the Egyptian queen's hand, the characters painted in bold brush strokes.

One word particularly struck the mayor: "ginesthoi," a Greek word that is roughly translated to mean, "Make it happen."

"That pretty much says it all," Rawlings-Blake says.