WASHINGTON — Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came to the nation's capital Wednesday to make a pitch for what big-city leaders want to see from the federal government — and the next president.
But when her appearance at the National Press Club was opened for questions, she wound up spending much of her time addressing the unrest that shook Baltimore in April, and how she handled it.
Rawlings-Blake, who was in Washington in her capacity as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the city was not as prepared as it should have been for the riots that erupted on the day Freddie Gray was buried. She said her administration is now taking additional steps to ready itself ahead of the trials of the six police officers charged in his arrest and death.
"I don't think anyone would have expected the unrest to unfold in the way that it did," Rawlings-Blake said. "What it did give us was an opportunity to strengthen our response."
Rawlings-Blake, who announced last month that she would not seek re-election next year, will remain the president of the mayors' conference until June. She hosted a bipartisan delegation of mayors in Baltimore over the weekend working on a "call to action" the group hopes will influence the presidential race.
But as she tries to carry that message forward, some predict she will face a challenge through the rest of her tenure: how to focus the conversation on the issues she wants to talk about — solutions to the urban ills that Gray's death laid bare — when much of her audience wants to hear about the unrest itself.
Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland, says the riots, arson and looting that drew international attention have impaired Rawlings-Blake's ability to be an effective messenger for the nation's mayors.
"The unfortunate reality is that her handling of the riots is going to be a distraction from a lot of the other topics she wants to talk about," Eberly said. "It's an unfortunate circumstance because she obviously wants to be an advocate for mayors and wants to be an advocate for cities."
David Lublin, a professor of government at American University, said Congress is so polarized that the mayors' plans are unlikely to gain traction — no matter who is delivering it.
"You could have the pope himself come and present their agenda, and the Republican Congress would not pass it," he said.
A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said he disagreed that the mayor's decision not to run for re-election or the unrest in Baltimore limits her effectiveness as a leader.
"As she has always done, the mayor will do what she thinks is right for the citizens of Baltimore and, in her role for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, she will do what she thinks is right for people who live in cities across the United States," spokesman Howard Libit said. "In some sense, she will be freed from the constant scrutiny of her actions being viewed through the lens of a re-election campaign."
Lublin said the unrest in Baltimore might "undermine" Rawlings-Blake's effectiveness at a national level, but it could also be useful.
"Crisis is another word for opportunity," he said. "She can use the events in Baltimore to sell the agenda. She could say, 'Look, we really need to address poverty in the cities.'"
Rawlings-Blake said there is direct connection between the riots and underlying challenges. She spent much of her address Wednesday focused on poverty, housing, unemployment and relations between the community and their police department.
Cities, she said, have to be at the center of the solutions to many of those problems.
Rawlings-Blake said that the mayors' conference, which represents cities with a population of 30,000 or more, is putting the final touches on an agenda that members want the presidential candidates to address as they crisscross the country in search of votes.
She said it has been difficult to get Democrats and Republicans in the group to come together around a common set of ideas, but there is broad consensus about increasing federal investment in infrastructure, homeland security and affordable housing, and addressing what she described as the nation's broken immigration system.
The mayor, who spent much of Wednesday meeting with U.S. Justice Department officials about the spike in crime in many cities, was also critical of Congress, which has struggled to pass even basic funding measures in recent years.
Lawmakers last week approved a short-term spending bill that will keep the government running only until Dec. 11. Washington is also approaching another showdown over the federal debt ceiling.
"Gridlock strangles Washington, and the consequences of that gridlock, they're passed on to cities," Rawlings-Blake said. "That gridlock is strangling the future of our country."
The mayor was criticized, both inside the government and out, for what some saw as a sluggish response to the mayhem that broke out on April 27. Her supporters have countered that the unrest was contained to a single day and resulted in no fatalities.
Rawlings-Blake said the city has increased police training and emergency communications in preparation for any unrest that might accompany the trials of the police officers.
"Baltimore was not as prepared as it should have been, and certainly could have been for the unrest," she said.
But Rawlings-Blake said there are no easy solutions to the challenges of urban poverty.
"None of this was created overnight," she said. "When you have years of neglect and you have years of abandonment, the fix will take years as well."
Rawlings-Blake was asked about the administration's relationship with the Fraternal Order of Police, which has been particularly sour in recent months.
The mayor responded by saying she tried to nudge union leaders toward reform, but that they resisted the effort.
"I don't know, based on the rhetoric they've been spewing in Baltimore, who would want the endorsement of the FOP," Rawlings-Blake said. "I think the actions of our police union, and many across the country, have really devalued the power of that union."
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that union has discussed many reforms but has not felt as though it had a partner at City Hall.
"I am not clear why Mayor Rawlings-Blake continues to pick fights with public safety," Ryan said in a statement. "She seems to be distorted in her way of thinking as to what has actually occurred during her term."
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.