'Confident' council president bitten early by political bug

The Baltimore Sun

Her law school friends were studying for the bar exam and worrying about which firm to join, but Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake was preparing for something else.

That summer, fresh out of the University of Maryland, the 25-year-old daughter of one of the state's most influential leaders put her law degree in a drawer and started knocking on doors in Northwest Baltimore. It was an election year. Everything else would wait.

"She said, 'I'm gonna see if I can do more,'" said Eric L. Bryant, a longtime friend of Rawlings-Blake, recalling the conversation the two had when she decided to run for City Council. "She told me as a matter of fact."

With the factual, unemotional style that has come to define her leadership, Rawlings-Blake won that year by more than 5,000 votes, becoming the youngest person ever elected to the council. This year, now 37, she is running for City Council president -- a considerably more ambitious goal -- in an extremely tight race.

Running in a citywide election for the first time, Rawlings-Blake faces community activist Michael Sarbanes and City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. She has served as president since January, when she was elected by her council colleagues to fill the vacancy created when Sheila Dixon became mayor.

During 12 years on the council -- including seven as its vice president -- Rawlings-Blake has not been a radical voice for change or outspoken on many of the city's pressing issues. In the past eight months, she has rarely challenged Dixon directly, nor has she used her power to enact any significant legislation of her own crafting.

She has, however, developed a reputation as a behind-the-scenes negotiator who effects change through compromise. This year, she persuaded the Dixon administration to set aside $1 million in surplus money for a program that helps homeowners pay for restoration projects, and she was one of the first elected officials to highlight the shortage of police officers.

"She has a terrific integrity and a terrific background, and that's what sold me in the beginning," said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, the dean of the council, who was introduced to Rawlings-Blake through her father, Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

Rawlings-Blake helped change the face of state politics when she persuaded her father to back a white councilman from Northeast Baltimore for mayor in 1999. This year, now-Gov. Martin O'Malley is working hard to return the favor. O'Malley formally endorsed her in July -- a month before he backed a mayoral candidate -- and has also helped with fundraising.

Recalling the 1999 race, O'Malley said that when he first met Rawlings, the head of the House Appropriations Committee told him he didn't have a chance to be mayor. But Rawlings-Blake won over her father, and his support gave O'Malley credibility in the majority black city.

"She has always been consistent; she's also unflappable. I think she has a lot of security and confidence, which allows her to keep an open mind," O'Malley said. Asked what makes her right for the job, he said: "Her steadiness, her commitment, her fairness and her sense of balance."

Rawlings-Blake was raised in the Ashburton neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore in a house that also served as a medical office for her mother, Dr. Nina Rawlings, a now-retired pediatrician. Dr. Rawlings remembers how her daughter, then in her teens, would sit and talk with patients while they waited for care.

"She really took it seriously. I had some little girls who didn't have many positive role models. I would just have her come down and sit and talk with them, and ask them questions about their life," Dr. Rawlings said.

She graduated from Western High School in 1988, where she played the flute and the oboe. With a passion for music -- especially jazz -- Rawlings-Blake chose Oberlin College in Ohio because the school offered strong programs in both music and politics. While still at Oberlin, she ran for state central committee in Baltimore.

It is no surprise, given her upbringing, that Rawlings-Blake was powerfully gripped by politics. Her father, a child of Baltimore public housing, spent a quarter-century in the General Assembly, exposing her to the city's most important leaders at the time, such as Sen. Verda Freeman Welcome, Maryland's first black female state senator.

"I've been interested in politics since I was 7 and 8, because of my dad but not just because of him, but because of the people who mentored him," Rawlings-Blake said. "I was telling someone about Senator Welcome. I used to look to her almost like she had an aura around her. Because that's how much respect I had for her. She was such an incredible person to me."

Rawlings-Blake makes frequent mention of her father in interviews and in her campaign's first television advertisement. After becoming president of the council, she added the hyphen to her last name because she was occasionally being referred to simply as "Blake" -- sans the "Rawlings."

She married Kent Blake, who works for Comcast, in 2000, and the couple have a 3-year-old daughter, Sophia. They live in the Coldspring neighborhood.

Rawlings-Blake served as chairwoman of the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee and became the vice president -- acting as the floor leader for then-Mayor O'Malley -- from 1999 until early this year. She left her job as a public defender in Baltimore to focus full time on the council presidency.

Critics say she has not introduced enough substantive bills that have been signed into law. They also argue that over the past eight months, she has been too friendly with the Dixon administration, fueling a long-held belief that the council acts as a rubber stamp for the mayor.

This year, Rawlings-Blake promoted a bill she introduced in 2005 that would have allowed the city to padlock homes if the owners were repeatedly cited for excessive noise, but the legislation has stalled. A resolution calling on the city to spend $2 million in surplus money for police recruitment was gutted after Dixon rejected the idea.

"There were two characteristics that I thought she needed, and they were assertiveness and independence," said state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who is backing Harris for president in part, she said, because of his independence.

Rawlings-Blake aides said the police recruitment bill was successful because it prompted Dixon to increase this year's recruitment goal from 240 to 300 new officers.

More broadly, Rawlings-Blake dismissed such criticism by arguing that the role of the president is not necessarily to push for policy changes through legislation, but rather to hold the mayor accountable and negotiate behind the scenes.

Rawlings-Blake was instrumental in getting the city to crack down on the Pall Mall Apartments in Northwest Baltimore, a haven for drug dealers that police nicknamed "The Ranch." She also worked with O'Malley's mayoral administration to land the Gaudenzia residential drug treatment center in Park Heights in 2002.

Many of her most significant moves since becoming president have been made with similar subtlety. She created a separate education committee in the council and named Mary Pat Clarke its chairwoman. The $1 million she persuaded the Dixon administration to set aside for homeowners' restoration projects was slipped into the budget with little fanfare.

"If people are looking for theatrics, they're not going to find them with me. I get the work done," Rawlings-Blake said. "I've been on the council when there has been this perception of this check to the power of the administration, but sitting where I sat, nothing got done."

Baltimore's form of government gives little power to the council president, a citywide position that will pay $98,000 next year. The office is often viewed as a launching pad for the mayor's office, though William Donald Schaefer was the last City Council president to be elected mayor.

Asked if she would consider running for mayor, Rawlings-Blake said: "I'm not thinking about it right now. I love what I'm doing."

Rawlings-Blake, who is often among the most stylishly dressed at City Hall, includes among her hobbies giving makeovers to her friends. She once made up an entire bridal party, several friends said.

Her mother tells the story of how Rawlings-Blake packed her bags full of makeup when she went on a camping trip in her teens -- even though makeup was prohibited. Counselors started pulling it out of her bags and found that the pile of contraband was almost as high as her other belongings.

But what people remember most about Rawlings-Blake is how she follows in her father's footsteps -- continuing a legacy that the Rawlings family built over decades in public service.

"I remember when her friends and relatives were seniors and they started saying, 'What am I going to do next?'" recalled Dr. Rawlings. "I remember she didn't have those jitters like a lot of young people do because it just seemed like she knew which way she was going."


Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake

Born: March 17, 1970 Job: President of the City Council since January. Previously an attorney with the city's branch of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. Education: Western High School, 1988; Oberlin College, B.A., 1992; University of Maryland, J.D., 1995. Election History: Ran successful campaigns for City Council in 1995, 1999 and 2003; formerly served on the Democratic State Central Committee. Website: www.rawlings-blake.com/


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