An education in politics

On the first day of kindergarten at Grace and St. Peter's School, a quiet girl was sitting alone, a new student in a room of boisterous children. • Stephanie Rawlings marched up, introduced herself and took charge: "You're going to play with us and be our friend." • That she was bossy and self-assured from an early age - her mother thinks her first complete sentence was "I did it myself" - might come as no surprise to those who have seen only the public side of Baltimore's next mayor.

Unflappable, soft-spoken and at times seemingly imperious, she has the grave demeanor, if not yet the accomplishments, of her late father and master statesman of Maryland's House of Delegates, Howard P. Rawlings.

But to her family and friends, the publicly aloof Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is the same person who reached out to the shy girl of the class, warmhearted and politically precocious. That kindergarten friend, after all, would grow up to become a loyal and longtime aide.

Taking the oath as mayor today caps a frenetic four weeks in which she has mingled with senators and mayors and, last Friday, even met with President Barack Obama - heady stuff even during a normal transition of power. But she also takes office against the backdrop of a City Hall corruption scandal that ousted her predecessor, adding to the tumult.

None of that, though, seems to have pierced her trademark steely exterior. Instead, she enters office with an air of composure, surrounded by many of the same people who have shaped her life to date - even as over the years she has displayed the tough political skills of someone who knows with whom to ally herself and whom to discard along the way.

To those who have seen her self-confidence over the years, it will be no surprise whom or what she plans to fall back on in this next phase.

"The biggest challenge for me is to stay true to what I know to be right in government," Rawlings-Blake, 39, said in a recent interview. "I believe in collaboration. I believe in sharing power. I will be a firm executive, but my challenge is that I won't lose sight of the things that have made me successful."

Late on a recent Friday, Rawlings-Blake joined Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, officers and community activists for a walk through Federal Hill's lively bar district. As the group picked its way through a crowd of people in their 20s in various states of inebriation, Bealefeld approached the owners of a hookah bar - the scene of a stabbing and the source of numerous community complaints - and mildly chastised the owners.

Then Rawlings-Blake, dressed in a black coat with a furry collar, spoke up. "If it's true what I heard," she told the bar owners, "I don't want you to be successful. I want you to close."

Her signature style, a mix of low-key dryness interspersed with blunt pronouncements, has won her allies and enemies.

In contrast to her predecessors - Martin O'Malley, the bandleader likely to take any opportunity to jump on stage, and Sheila Dixon, a former teacher known for speaking her mind - Rawlings-Blake is more reserved. She is by nature serious, if not downright wonky, something that might have served her well, first as a City Council member and then as the legislative body's president.

But as she has neared the much higher-profile mayor's office, she has had to get used to having a half-dozen cameras trained on her while she's thinking through a problem.

Being in the public gaze is difficult, Rawlings-Blake says.

"I don't wear my heart on my sleeve," she said. "It's just not who I am."

The Rawlings-Blake political biography tends to begin with her father, but his legacy is one that from an early age she knew could both help or overshadow her.

"Pete" and Nina Rawlings met while studying at what was then called Morgan State College. Both came from large families led by parents with high expectations. Pete Rawlings, who had spent part of his childhood in public housing, majored in math. Nina Cole was a pre-med student who would become one of the first black women to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Residents of the Ashburton neighborhood, traditionally home to many of the city's most influential African-Americans, the Rawlings family associated with professors, ministers and other leaders. Kurt L. Schmoke, who would later become mayor, lived up the street; his son was good friends with Wendell, the youngest Rawlings child.

Encouraged by leading politicians, including Sen. Verda F. Welcome, Rawlings ran for the House of Delegates when his younger daughter was in elementary school. Stephanie tagged along with her father to meetings, sitting under a desk in The Afro-American newsroom while he discussed politics and visiting the home of Welcome, the first black woman to serve in the state Senate, where she recalls being "awestruck" by the senator's poise and confidence.

The youngster eagerly accompanied her father to pass out leaflets and knock on doors. When other children chose birthday parties with superhero or Barbie themes, she planned an election party - complete with candidates, slates of issues and ballots.

If she spotted a child littering, she would say, "We have to keep our city clean. I'm going to be mayor one day," her mother recalled.

Her first bid for office came during freshman year at Western High School, when she ran for class vice president.

Young Stephanie labored over posters to tack up in the hallways and discussed her platform with friends. But there was one person she didn't ask for advice - her father.

"I always felt like I knew it all," she said. "And we were always in competition. If I went to him for advice, then he could take credit for my win."

A loving rivalry permeated their relationship. For the father-daughter dance at her wedding in 2000, she chose the song, "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better."

From childhood, she debated with her father on a wide variety of topics, taking for granted the privilege of matching wits with one of the state's leaders.

"She adored her father, looked up to him, attempted to be very much like him, but was perfectly willing to challenge him, which he really liked," said Casper R. Taylor Jr., a former speaker of the Maryland House, who worked closely with Rawlings. "And she wouldn't back down from her position when they were in a debate."

Father and daughter shared a tall build, a fascination with policy and a birthday - March 17. She would remind her father of this when she found herself in a difficult spot, recalled her elder sister, Lisa Rawlings.

"She'd run to my dad and he'd say, 'Oh, no, what is up with my little birthday present?' " she said.

In serious moments, it seemed that father and daughter shared a connection that ran deeper than words, said Kaliope Parthemos, a friend from middle school who is now a top aide.

During her first run for the council, in 1995, a man refused to shake Rawlings-Blake's hand at a campaign event, saying, "You're just a [racial slur] with a degree," recalled Parthemos, her campaign manager at the time.

She said Rawlings-Blake went home that night and walked upstairs without talking to her dad. But Parthemos, shaking with rage, told Rawlings, whom she called "Uncle Petey," of the comment.

When his daughter reappeared, Rawlings asked, "Did you let them see you lose your cool?"

"Daddy!" she said. They gazed at each other and said no more.

As a teen, Stephanie sported polka-dot tights, clashing stripes and an asymmetrical '80s hairdo. She was fond of her blow dryer, which she optimistically packed for a three-week Outward Bound excursion in the wilderness.

The city girl took great pleasure in reminding the group which television shows they were missing at what time on that trip, but she also learned to embrace the outdoors and to push her limits, learning to run 10 miles on command.

"She was always outwardly cocky and confident," her father told The Baltimore Sun in 1996. "But [Outward Bound] moved her from being a person who tries to exhibit confidence to a person who is truly confident."

She returned to Western High School and her honors classes her junior year with a little more hustle in her tennis game and the confidence to argue a point with anyone, even a math problem with a teacher.

"She was very sure about her answer unless I was able to convince her otherwise," said Victoria Stevenson, who taught her trigonometry and analytic geometry more than 20 years ago.

Rawlings-Blake credits Western, the nation's oldest all-girls public school, with keeping her focused on academics during her teen years.

"I was just so programmed to get in there and do the work," she said. "That high school boy-girl stuff just didn't enter my mind."

She took German, played flute and, after winning the race for vice president freshman year, was elected president of the sophomore class. She played on the varsity tennis team and joined the school newspaper, the Campus Crier.

"She was one of our top students," said current Western Principal Eleanor Matthews, who was in charge of the foreign language department at the time.

Stephanie stands in the front row in a shot of the newspaper staff from her 1988 yearbook, her graduation year, grinning widely and wearing sunglasses and a brimmed hat.

At Oberlin, known for being one of the nation's most liberal colleges, Rawlings-Blakerefrained from the edgier extracurriculars, such as the clothing-optional dorm. She was attracted by the college's political science department and the famed music conservatory, though she did not continue to play flute in college. "Stephanie was an unusually serious student," said Paul Dawson, a political science professor who taught her in two courses. "She would ask me questions that would push [beyond the] material."

Another Dawson student was current Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a classmate of Rawlings-Blake's. Social justice was important to both students, Dawson said, and he saw a similar promise in each.

Rocker Liz Phair and conservative author Michelle Malkin also studied at Oberlin during Rawlings-Blake'sfour years.

She flung herself into the school's cultural life, attending lectures, a capella concerts and African dance performances.

Rawlings-Blakeearned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1992 and went on to the University of Maryland School of Law, where a professor and family friend said he always thought of her more as her mother's daughter.

"There's a kind of calmness about Stephanie that is characteristic of her mother," said law professor Larry Gibson, who has known the Rawlings family since the 1970s. "It doesn't surprise me that she would succeed."

While still in school, she started building a political resume: She was twice elected to the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee while at Oberlin and again in 1994, a year before she earned her law degree. And before she had even passed the bar, she had her sights on another political post.

In the spring of 1995, two of three incumbents decided not to run in the city's old 5th Council District of Northwest Baltimore, which included her Ashburton neighborhood. (Until redistricting in 2000, three council members represented each district.) Rawlings-Blakesaw her chance. The bar could wait.

"The lights opened up," she said. "I knew, if this is what you really want, this is your opportunity."

She turned to Parthemos, a friend since their days at Roland Park Middle School, and asked her to manage her campaign. Despite different backgrounds - Parthemos was raised in Greektown by immigrant parents - the two had clicked and become close friends.

"She said it would be lots of fun," said Parthemos, with a wry laugh. "It was lots and lots of work. It was a trial by fire for both of us."

Rawlings-Blaketeamed up with veteran Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and another newcomer, Helen L. Holton, and canvassed the community.

"It was invigorating," she said. "I had a lot of confidence. I was 25, but I had more experience in government and politics than just about all of them. I had been campaigning since I was 8."

She came in third in a field of 15 candidates, which meant she would be seated, the youngest person ever elected to the Baltimore City Council. The election brought new energy to the council, which had been torn by a fierce power struggle between then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and then-Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.

Among the new representatives were two other scions of Baltimore's political elite - Kieffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose family tree includes a congressman, civil rights leaders and city and state officials, and Robert W. Curran, who filled the council seat vacated by his brother, Martin E. "Mike" Curran, and previously held by their father, J. Joseph Curran Sr. With Rawlings-Blake, the three would form an independent voting bloc, calling themselves the "Angelina's Pact" after the crab cake restaurant on Harford Road.

"We were looked to as the next generation," Mitchell said. "There was a lot of hope."

By early 1996, Rawlings-Blake was juggling her political duties with studying for the bar, which she passed early in the year. She became a member of the Maryland state bar on June 5, 1996, and the federal bar in July 1997, though she would never practice in federal court.

In February 1997, she took a part-time position as an attorney within Baltimore's Legal Aid Bureau, a nonprofit that provides free counsel to low-income people.

The clients came from the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. Many had been ravaged by drug addiction. They hadn't completed high school. Most were repeat offenders, racking up charges for petty thefts and drugs. "It helped crystallize in my mind what the most pressing issues were for the neediest in our city," said Rawlings-Blake.

Executive Director William H. Joseph Jr. remembers her as a "very committed member of our staff."

"My sense of Stephanie is that she is an advocate on every level," said Joseph, who hired her. But she's been most valuable to his organization as a politician.

She and Mitchell introduced and secured a unanimous resolution calling for a $250,000 grant from then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. It has come through twice more since then, though slightly reduced in the most recent year.

Rawlings-Blake traded the bureau's civil work for a criminal docket in 1998, joining the Baltimore Public Defender's Office in its Southern District in March and handling the usual array of misdemeanors, from drug possession to public urination.

Assistant Public Defender Robert Raglin shared an office with her for five years and says she was a pleasure to work with.

"She's a serious person, but she is very warm, she's very friendly, especially when you get to know her," he said. Her father called her daily to check in, and the entire family, siblings too, passed through the office to visit. Raglin became friends with her husband that way.

"They're a very family-oriented group," he said.

They each handled 10 to 15 cases per day, five days a week, and she was always there on time, despite wearing two hats: one a lawyer's and one a council member's.

"Obviously, she had to give time to both of them, and I give her a lot of credit for that," Raglin said. She "focuses on what she's doing at the time."

Rawlings-Blake left the Public Defender's Office in December 2006, and has let her law licenses go on inactive status, knowing that she wanted to focus on politics full time.

Pete Rawlings and several of the city's power brokers gathered in 1999 to debate who should be the city's next leader. It was 1999, and Schmoke had signaled his desire to move on after three terms as mayor. The front-runners, Council President Bell and former Councilman Carl Stokes, had each committed a series of gaffes. Attempts to draft then- NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and council member, had failed.

Rawlings-Blake spoke up. What about Martin O'Malley, her colleague on the council and also a mayoral candidate? He wasn't perfect, but was the old guard ignoring him simply because he was a white candidate in a predominantly black city?

"I just remember sitting there being so frustrated," she recalled. "I told my dad, 'The only thing he is not is black. If he was a grandstanding, arrogant, add-your-other-adjective black person, everyone at this table would be on board. You didn't help me get all this education to continue down the old-school way of thinking.' "

Plus, she pointed out, O'Malley got along well with another council member, Sheila Dixon, a favorite of her father's. Wouldn't they make a successful mayor-council president ticket?

After some deliberation, Rawlings agreed. His endorsement helped launch O'Malley to victory. But critics accused Rawlings of striking the deal to boost his daughter's career.

He handled the heat with his trademark equanimity. "When you're a leader, you define vision," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1999 interview on the issue. "When you're a leader, you take risks. When you're a leader, you make yourself vulnerable in a democracy."

O'Malley returned the favor, endorsing Rawlings-Blake as council vice president, the member traditionally responsible for wresting votes on the council for the mayor's agenda.

But her rise would come at a price. It was the end of the Angelina's Pact, said Mitchell, who had been one of her closest allies until that point.

"When O'Malley became mayor," he said, "she was 100 percent with the administration."

Their political bond remains strong today, with O'Malley in the governor's office and Rawlings-Blake following Dixon, first as City Council president and, today, mayor.

In fact, O'Malley supported Rawlings-Blake's bid for council president in 2007, weeks before extending an endorsement to Dixon's re-election campaign. And he offered up a close aide, Sean Malone, to help Rawlings-Blake in the close race against Michael Sarbanes. Malone is one of several staff members O'Malley and Rawlings-Blake have shared over the years.

The governor's press secretary, Shaun Adamec, held the same position in Rawlings-Blake's administration; her current spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, is another former O'Malley aide. The governor and incoming mayor also share a fundraiser, Colleen Martin-Lauer.

Rawlings-Blake calls the governor a "mentor" but bristles at the suggestion that he holds undue sway over her. Privately, many council members say they feel that O'Malley exerts a strong influence on her decisions. Many point to her recent surreptitious endorsement of Councilman William H. Cole IV, an O'Malley favorite, as her successor in the council president's office.

Several council members have decried behind-the-scenes arm-twisting on Cole's behalf; Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo has publicly said she is not ready to be mayor.

Another former ally with whom she campaigned for the City Council now has similarly harsh words. Councilwoman Helen Holton, who has served with her since they were both elected to represent the old 5th District in 1995, says they have long had differences of opinion.

"The council president was one who always looked out for her interests," she said. "I think if she were not [Rawlings'] daughter, who knows where she'd be."

As Rawlings-Blake's political career was getting under way, though, she was going through some personal crises. Her father had fallen ill, and he died of cancer in 2003.

Meanwhile, she and her husband, Kent Blake, were struggling financially. The condominium association in Coldspring North, where she owns a townhouse, filed a lawsuit for unpaid fees against her in March 2004, according to court records. The next year, Capital One Bank sued her for nearly $2,000 in unpaid debts. And in early 2006, after she fell behind in payments on her $65,000 mortgage, lenders opened foreclosure proceedings.

The debts were paid and the cases dismissed, court records show.

Rawlings-Blake attributes the money problems to the failure of her husband's business, two smoothie stands named Juice Phoria.

The juice stands "were more of a financial struggle than we anticipated," she said. "It doesn't take a lot for a middle-class family to fall behind."

The money troubles have made her less judgmental about those who experience similar difficulties, she said. "I know what it's like to have struggles and try your best to meet your obligations and your best isn't good enough," she said. "I don't look at people with financial problems as lazy or irresponsible."

Blake, a Howard County native, now works as an assistant at Century 21 and is awaiting certification as a real estate broker, she said.

They have a 6-year-old daughter, Sophia. Like any working mother, Rawlings-Blake juggles the responsibilities of work and home.

She's a familiar presence at her daughter's school, Mount Washington Elementary, clapping at kindergarten programs, squeezing into tiny classroom chairs to sip juice at events and lending a hand at fundraisers.

A few weeks ago, shortly after Dixon announced her resignation, Rawlings-Blake impressed other parents by joining them to bag groceries at Whole Foods to raise money for a green playground and a garden the school hopes to build.

Since Rawlings-Blake often attends meetings and functions into the evening, her mother picks up Sophia after school most days. The girl does her homework, reads "American Girl" books and plays Scrabble Slam with her grandmother in the same Ashburton home where her mother grew up.

"She's my little buddy," Nina Rawlings said. "She's a lot like her mother - very self-assured, very sociable."

During a public hearing in April, a woman testifying against a bill Rawlings-Blake had introduced on live entertainment - one of her signature issues - called her "Stephanie."

The council president grew enraged. "We don't know each other," she said to the woman, launching into a frosty lecture on how she should be addressed - as Madame or Council President or Mrs. Rawlings-Blake.

She subsequently wrote the woman an apology and attributed the outburst to a long and frustrating day. But the incident has stuck in the memory of many residents.

Federal Hill association president Paul Robinson, who opposed Rawlings-Blake's live-entertainment legislation, calls her "unbelievably intelligent" but said he was troubled by the forceful way she pushed for the bill, which later passed. The law will make it easier for restaurants and bars to host concerts, poetry readings and dances, but some residents fear that it will lead to crowded sidewalks and noise problems.

"She's got her dad's expression," Robinson said. "It was perceived as gravitas in her dad. But in the mayor-designate, many people perceive that look as being aloof. To use that look a little less often might serve her well."

But those who know her best caution against misinterpreting her reserved demeanor.

"I think she cares very deeply," said Mfume, a longtime family friend. "I think she's very thoughtful, but I think she's considered and very measured."

As she moves into the mayor's office, the spotlight will be much brighter than she was used to on the council. Baltimore Sun interviews with nearly 400 residents indicated that a quarter of them do not feel that Rawlings-Blake is ready to lead the city; 40 percent said they did not know enough about her to make a decision.

Last year, as Dixon was indicted, tried and ultimately convicted of embezzling gift cards meant for the city's needy, the woman next in the line of succession was careful not to appear too eager to replace her. Still, observers noted that Rawlings-Blake might be readying herself for a more public role, as she lost weight and updated her hairstyle, twice.

Rawlings-Blake hasn't announced plans to run for mayor in 2011, saying that she wants to see how she does first. Recent council presidents who have become interim mayors have had their share of bad luck. Clarence Du Burns, appointed to fill William Donald Schaefer's seat when he became governor, flopped at the polls. Dixon, ascending after O'Malley went to Annapolis, won re-election handily but became mired in scandal.

Rawlings-Blake, even before officially becoming mayor, took a proactive approach, proposing to tighten the city's ethics code in the wake of Dixon's legal woes, which stemmed in part from gifts that developers gave her at a time when they had business before City Hall.

Now, she faces staggering budgetary challenges in the months ahead. She inherits a $60 million shortfall in the current financial year and the need to slash up to $126 million from next year's budget; police and fire pension problems could push the city $60 million more into the red.

It will take no small amount of political and personal skills to navigate the budget-cutting, and come away, if not unscathed, at least not entirely to blame. The calm and analytical bearing she inherited from her father will be invaluable, as will the personal warmth and dry wit.

At a recent luncheon work session, Councilman Bill Henry asked if she were open to amendments to an ethics bill she was introducing.

"No," she said, glaring. Then she lifted the corner of her mouth in a half-smile and flashed her big brown eyes - a characteristic expression.

"Of course I am, Bill."

Baltimore Sun reporters Tricia Bishop, Annie Linskey, Justin Fenton and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.