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Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore's 'traumatic year'

Rawlings-Blake: 'I'm not going to allow this very, very tough year to become the defining moment for our city.

The year 2015 began as a time of great possibility for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

She was the incoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a first for an African-American woman. Crime in Baltimore was at a low, while the city's economy was improving. She began flirting with a run for the U.S. Senate.

But instead of raising her 20-year political career to new heights, 2015 brought it to an end. The death in April of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody sparked protests and rioting across the city. The U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore police, who were led by a commissioner the mayor fired by summer amid a surge of violence. Baltimore's homicides soared past 300 killings.

Rawlings-Blake, 45, decided to step aside from politics. In 2016, for the first time in two decades, her name will not appear on a ballot.

"It was a traumatic year for us," the mayor, a Democrat, said recently. "But we are resilient. I'm thankful for the way people rallied together after the unrest and the riots. I'm thankful we have another day to work to get better. I'm not going to allow this very, very tough year to become the defining moment for our city."

The unrest drew national attention to Baltimore's impoverished neighborhoods, where community leaders say residents have suffered for years from racism, crime and a lack of educational opportunities. Rawlings-Blake asked leaders from the business, nonprofit and religious communities to join a "One Baltimore" campaign to tackle persistent city ills. It began by finding jobs for 3,000 young people who were on a waiting list for summer employment.

The city's unrest and rising homicide rate overshadowed Rawlings-Blake's work on other issues, such as reducing the city's structural deficit and introducing new tax credits to spark business growth.

Amid continued killings, the mayor embarked on a series of neighborhood walks to hear concerns and pledge solutions.

She also sharply criticized Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for canceling the city's long-planned Red Line light rail project and directed her transportation department to identify alternatives. She formed a task force to decide what to do with Baltimore's Confederate-era monuments. She removed her director of CitiStat, an accountability office, after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed the agency wasn't doing its job.

In September, Rawlings-Blake announced she would not seek re-election, saying the work of addressing the city's problems was too important.

"The last thing I want is for every one of the decisions that I make moving forward — at a time when the city needs me the most — to be questioned in the context of a political campaign," she said before a bank of television cameras.

She said top issues for the rest of her term would include bringing new jobs to Baltimore, financing millions in new recreation programs and managing a $1 billion plan to rebuild schools.

Her announcement paved the way for a spirited campaign by a growing list of Democrats who want to succeed her, including Mayor Sheila Dixon, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, City Councilmen Nick J. Mosby and Carl Stokes, businessman David L. Warnock and Elizabeth Embry, criminal division chief for the Maryland attorney general's office.

The coming year, the last of Rawlings-Blake's mayoralty, could be one of municipal austerity. The city's budget office is predicting a $75 million shortfall for next fiscal year, and the mayor has told all city agencies to propose spending cuts of up to 5 percent.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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