City Council president can only wait for other shoe to drop

Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake talks to Bernard C. "Jack" Young, chairman of the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee, during a hearing Wednesday at City Hall.
Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake talks to Bernard C. "Jack" Young, chairman of the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee, during a hearing Wednesday at City Hall. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)
Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake can do little more than wait - at least publicly - before learning whether or when she becomes mayor.

By law, the council president automatically becomes the chief executive if the office becomes vacant, and Mayor Sheila Dixon's criminal conviction this week could force her out under the state constitution. But Dixon's lawyers are considering whether to challenge the verdict and a suspension, and Dixon insists that for now, she's on the job.

That means Rawlings-Blake has scant opportunity to prepare for the responsibilities she might soon undertake as budget woes and crime problems demand City Hall's full attention. She can't interview department heads, map out new policies or size up the second-floor mayoral suite - the types of things a mayor-elect would have weeks to study.

"Stephanie is walking a tightrope," said Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a former city councilman and mayoral candidate. "There's uncertainty as to whether Mayor Dixon will step down. ... And Stephanie doesn't want to seem overly ambitious while also handling her job as City Council president."

If a change in administrations does happen, it could take place in a matter of days. "In some ways, it would be like trying to change the tire while the car is still moving," said Otis Rolley III, who helped lead Dixon's transition and served as her chief of staff but now works with the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a civic group.

Asked last night if she was making preparations in case she becomes mayor, Rawlings-Blake said "no."

Her office declined a request for an interview, but after a City Hall hearing, she said that "the thing that I focus on and what I reminded my colleagues to focus on ... is the budget. We have very serious work to do when we're looking at the budget. We don't have time to speculate."

Rawlings-Blake's supporters say that the 39-year-old mother has sufficient experience to step into the mayor's job by dint of her long career in city government.

The daughter of renowned Baltimore politician Howard P. Rawlings, a mathematician who was a skilled tactician as head of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis, she became the youngest person ever elected to the City Council in 1995.

She also served as a public defender until ascending to her current position after a reshuffling at City Hall, when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley became governor and Dixon vacated the council presidency to become mayor in 2007. Rawlings-Blake won citywide election to the council presidency later that same year.

Now she could again rise by stepping into a vacancy.

Rawlings-Blake is known for a low-key style, and was criticized at one time for a lack of legislative accomplishments and for being too friendly with the Dixon administration. But others say she is a deft behind-the-scenes negotiator and that she has established herself as an independent leader.

The council under Rawlings-Blake tussled with the mayor over the budget this year, a rarity in the heavily Democratic city, and she recently took on a controversial issue by leading the push for a measure requiring crisis-pregnancy centers to display signs stating they don't provide abortions or birth-control referrals. Baltimore appears to be the first place in the country to adopt such a law.

Rawlings-Blake is likely to face increased scrutiny in the weeks ahead.

Dixon was convicted of stealing about $500 in gift cards intended for charity after a lengthy investigation into alleged City Hall corruption revealed a cozy relationship between developers and elected officials. That could mean Rawlings-Blake's personal financial problems are put on display - as they were during the last election.

In March 2004, the condominium association at the Coldspring North complex where she lives filed a lawsuit against her for more than $5,000 in assessments, which she failed to pay despite a lien against her residence, court records show. In late 2005, Capital One Bank brought suit against her for $1,800 in unpaid debt. And in early 2006, lenders began foreclosure proceedings on her home, after she became delinquent on a $65,000 mortgage.

Court records show that all the bad debts were paid and the cases dismissed, and Rawlings-Blake has said that the financial problems were private matters that to some extent coincided with the illness and 2003 death of her father.

She won that last election in a tight Democratic primary. But while the City Council presidency is considered a launching pad to the mayor's office, many colleagues said they didn't know if she aspired to the office.

"Stephanie is unlike other politicians," said state Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "She is very focused on the job she has at hand. She doesn't have those aspirational issues that oftentimes prevent you from focusing on what you should be focused on."

Rolley, the former Dixon transition head, predicted that Rawlings-Blake would likely find a cooperative bureaucracy at City Hall if she takes over.

While City Council members said discussions about transition plans are premature, some noted that Rawlings-Blake would likely retain many of Dixon's department heads. And several council members expressed confidence in the ability of Rawlings-Blake to step into the role of mayor if need be.

"It's awkward; it's just very awkward ... and I would feel a lot more comfortable if I knew how this process plays out," said Councilman William H. Cole IV. "But there is no doubt in my mind that Stephanie is prepared to handle the challenge if that's what we end up with."

Baltimore Sun reporters Robert Little and Julie Scharper contributed to this article.