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Ready to prove she can handle job

As a 25-year-old fresh out of law school making her first run for public office, Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake never imagined that one day she would assume the city's second-highest office.

"I wanted to be involved and wanted to be in public service," the three-term council member recalled last week. "I was looking to use skills I developed. I didn't say, 'I want to be council president.'"

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But council president is exactly what the now 36-year-old daughter of one of the city's most respected political figures is poised to be. Rawlings Blake, who has served as vice president for the past seven years, is virtually assured of becoming president in a vote of her council colleagues when the legislative body meets tomorrow - part of the domino effect created last week when former Mayor Martin O'Malley was sworn in as governor, and former Council President Sheila Dixon took the mantle of mayor.

In Dixon's inaugural address last week, the new mayor paid homage to both Rawlings Blake and her late father.

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"How appropriate that the daughter of the man who encouraged me to run for office, the great Howard "Pete" Rawlings [the longtime state delegate and legislative leader who died in 2003], will be succeeding me as president of the council," Dixon said.

Last week, the council's Web site was changed to identify Rawlings Blake as "acting president" of the legislative body. A council staffer greeted her with a mock ceremonious bow. And the council president-to-be - who left her job as a public defender in late November to prepare for the transition - was busy assembling a staff of Dixon holdovers and new appointees, at one point jokingly asking an acquaintance, "Can you answer phones?"

As council president, the former chairwoman of the budget and appropriations committee says she wants to boost support of the nonprofit Healthy Neighborhoods initiative that seeks to assist communities that are on the cusp between stability and decay. She also says she supports a review of the city's property tax rates as well as the city-state school governing partnership that her father was instrumental in creating, but she stops short of advocating specific changes. And she says she intends to maintain a good working relationship with Dixon - while closely monitoring the performance of the new mayor's agencies.

One of her first acts has raised eyebrows. That was her decision 10 days ago to strip Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. of his post as chairman of the influential Taxation and Finance Committee just days after Mitchell announced he intended to run for mayor. Mitchell called the move "petty politics," but Rawlings Blake characterized it as part of the inevitable changes that accompany new leadership.

Soft-spoken but confident, Rawlings Blake leaves no doubts that she feels she is up to leading the city's legislative body at a time when many are eyeing a move to higher office in the city's September primary.

"I know I can do the job," she says. "I've stood in for the [council] president. I've worked well with my colleagues."

"I think we'll have a good relationship with Mayor Dixon," she adds. "I was able to work well with her when she was president. I don't think anything will change. We're both interested in the best for the city."

Describing her as a "consensus builder," Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said, "I think she'll be a good council president, if the council cooperates with her."

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Mitchell, who joined the council with Rawlings Blake in 1995, said, "One thing I give her credit for - we've always kept the lines of communication open. Even now."

But Mitchell voiced a widespread concern when he added, "We always get tagged with the label of a rubber stamp. I hope there will be some kind of independence and some give and take."

Raised in the Ashburton section of Northwest Baltimore, Rawlings Blake graduated from Western High School, Oberlin College (where a classmate was District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty) and the University of Maryland School of Law.

She says she was influenced by the work of her mother, Nina, a now-retired neighborhood pediatrician, and her father, who as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee was a member of the General Assembly's inner circle.

"Watching his leadership - what he was able to do for the city and the state - was an inspiration to me," Rawlings Blake said.

After serving on the Democratic State Central Committee, she emerged from a crowded field to secure one of two open City Council seats in the old three-member 5th Councilmanic District in the Northwest. That made her, at age 25, the youngest person ever elected to the City Council.

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It was during her first term that her father helped craft the city-state school partnership that boosted state spending on city schools in exchange for greater state authority over the system. The partnership was denounced by many in the African-American community who decried the diminution of local control.

"He took an unpopular stand for the benefit of the children of Baltimore," Rawlings Blake said of her father. "Every time I hear of a test score going up or an attendance rate going up, I know he's smiling."

In 1999, Rawlings Blake helped influence the course of the city's history when she persuaded her father to consider throwing his support behind O'Malley, then one of her council colleagues. Her father's subsequent endorsement of O'Malley was a key factor in O'Malley's victory in the Democratic primary. For the past seven years, Rawlings Blake has been the mayor's legislative floor leader and the council's second-in- command.

Under the council's new single-member alignment, Rawlings Blake has for the past two years represented the North and Northwest's 6th Councilmanic District, which includes upscale, mostly white Roland Park and distressed, mostly black Park Heights.

"It's the city in miniature," said Rawlings Blake, who lives in Coldspring with her husband, Kent Blake, a businessman, and 3-year-old daughter Sophia.

As council president, she says she wants to ensure that "the priorities of each district ... aren't an afterthought."

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Rawlings Blake's Web site notes among her accomplishments her sponsorship of legislation outlawing illegal dumping and racial profiling.

After passing the Maryland bar in 1996, Rawlings Blake spent a year as an attorney at the Legal Aid Bureau and the last seven as an attorney with the city's branch of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, handling preliminary appearances and misdemeanors in District Court.

"I was often surprised when one of my clients had finished high school because most hadn't," she said. "The majority of my clients were dependent on illegal drugs; very few of them had steady employment. That basically sums the significant problems of the city."

Her solution? Strengthen schools and expand job training and drug treatment.

"I'd call her vigorous," said Elizabeth Julian, the district public defender for Baltimore. "She's a good advocate. She doesn't let things drop or go. She's always very organized."

Kimberly Washington, a childhood friend who came from the city's housing department to be the incoming council president's chief of staff, describes Rawlings Blake as "bright" and "thoughtful" but said, "She's not a self-promoter. ... We'll push her to do more of that."

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One thing Rawlings Blake doesn't have to be pushed to do is talk about whether she plans to seek a full term as council president come September. Her answer is an unequivocal "yes"; less clear, at this stage, is who else will enter the race.

"We're at a time that's too delicate to play politics or to leave things to chance," Rawlings Blake said. "People want to know that government is in good hands. I'll show them that I'm the person for the job."

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake

Born

March 17, 1970, Baltimore

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Education

Western High School, 1988; Oberlin College, 1992; University of Maryland School of Law, 1995

Professional

City Council member, 1995-present, representing the old 5th District for the first nine years and the new 6th District for the past two years; council vice president, 1999-2007. Administrative attorney, Legal Aid Bureau, 1997-98; staff attorney, Maryland Office of the Public Defender, 1998-2006.

Personal

Married to Kent Blake; one child, Sophia, age 3


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