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Challengers emerge to Rawlings-Blake in 2011 mayor's race

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has coped with a pair of historic blizzards, closed a record budget deficit and overhauled the police and fire pension system since taking office in February.

Now, at 40, she is gearing up for her biggest challenge yet: keeping the position she filled when Sheila Dixon resigned earlier this year.

With fewer than 10 months to go until Baltimore's primary election, several candidates have already said they will run against Rawlings-Blake, who was elected City Council president by a tidy margin in 2007 and automatically elevated when Dixon's legal problems created a vacancy.

Otis Rolley, 36, who created the city's first master plan in 2006 while working for then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, has launched a campaign website and is aggressively raising funds.

Frank Conaway Sr., 77, the clerk of the Circuit Court, has announced a bid, saying the city needs "a father figure." And state Sen. Catherine Pugh, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Carl Stokes are all said to be considering a run for mayor.

Perhaps the most formidable name that some mention — as has been the case for mayoral races stretching back more than a decade — is Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and past president of the NAACP.

Mfume denies that he is planning a campaign, but he chooses his words carefully, leaving open the possibility that he could launch a bid for the city's highest office early next year.

"I'm not contemplating running for anything right now. I'm concentrating on helping to lead the National Medical Association," a group which Mfume has led since March that advocates for African-American doctors and patients.

Candidates have until July to file for the $155,000-a-year position, which means there is plenty of time for the players to shift before the primary election. With Baltimore's overwhelmingly Democratic voter registration, the winner of the primary is all but assured of the job.

Many potential candidates say that they don't plan to make an announcement until the new year begins.

Pugh is rumored to be considering a campaign. "I'm focused on the upcoming General Assembly session and chairing the Legislative Black Caucus," Pugh said.

But candidates can't wait too long to start fundraising, says Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"They have to announce early enough to start raising enough money to be viable," said Norris.

And a crowded field of candidates means that Rawlings-Blake and her top contenders will need to raise significantly more funds, he said. Those knowledgeable about city campaigns think the winner will spend about $1 million.

As the current officeholder, Rawlings-Blake brings a major advantage to the race, Norris said. Incumbent candidates have an edge on fundraising and command the most media attention, he said.

"Anytime Stephanie Rawlings-Blake does something of note, she's in the paper, she's on TV," he said. "Her opponents don't have that luxury." The mayor has about $191,000 in her campaign account, records show.

And Rawlings-Blake is the only candidate who can point to a record in the mayor's office.

She unveiled a strategy for coping with the city's persistent problems of vacant homes, filled longstanding vacancies in some of the city's top offices and pushed through a package of new taxes and service cuts to close a $121 million budget hole.

And Rawlings-Blake implemented broad and long-needed changes to the public safety pension plan, which are estimated to save the city $400 million over five years, but provoked a bitter response from the police and fire unions. The unions sued the city over the pension issue in federal court and have picketed political fundraisers and posted billboards castigating the mayor and council.

Critics contend that the mayor could struggle in a citywide election, because of her reserved nature in public appearances. Rawlings-Blake insists her serious and thoughtful demeanor should not be confused with a lack of enthusiasm.

"If I wasn't passionate about moving the city forward, why .. would I fix the pension system?" she said. "I could have made the tiniest of fixes and skated through until the election. My obligation and duty as mayor are to make those tough decisions. My deeds speak to my passion. I could say it with pom-poms in my hands, but I think that's silly."

Caretaker not needed

Rolley, the challenger with the most-organized campaign, is well-known in political and business circles but has little name recognition with the general public. He says his background in planning and expertise in housing and transportation make him best equipped to run the city.

"Baltimore is at a tipping point," Rolley said. "We know we could be a world-class city, but we're not there yet. I think Baltimore is ready for a leader who has a plan and can implement that plan."

Rolley, who holds a master's degree in urban planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served as a deputy commissioner in the city housing department before taking the helm of the planning department. He headed Dixon's transition team when she became mayor in 2006 and served as her chief of staff during her first year in office. He founded the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance — a group which advocated for the Red Line, among other projects — and most recently worked with an urban policy consulting firm. His first campaign finance report is due in January.

"Baltimore is not a city where you need a caretaker," Rolley said. "You need a mayor with a vision. This is about understanding city planning and wanting to implement a plan."

Conaway, who has served as the city's clerk of courts for 12 years and was recently elected to a fifth term, has announced a run for mayor three times before, but withdrew to support other candidates before the campaign got underway in earnest.

This time, he says, he is in the race to stay.

"I'm not getting out," he said. "I want them to get out for me."

Conaway, whose wife, son and daughter all hold elected positions, says he wants to encourage residents to renovate vacant homes in their communities and encourage neighborhoods to take a tougher stance on crime.

"We mollycoddle these youngsters and they graduate to these more heinous crimes," Conaway said.

He says the city's challenges call for the leadership of someone older and paternal, such as himself.

"I'm not saying women aren't capable, but right now I think we'd be better off with a father figure."

The other likely challengers, including Pugh, Young and Stokes, are keeping their cards close to the vest.

"I haven't said to anyone what I'm running for yet," Young said. "Right now my focus is on focusing on being the best council president I can be."

Sources close to Young, who was elected to the president's seat by his peers after Rawlings-Blake became mayor, say that he is debating running for mayor or council president. He has $233,000 in his campaign account — enough to mount a formidable bid for either office.

He has advocated for a series of measures to increase transparency in government, including airing spending, zoning and liquor board hearings on the city's cable channel.

But he has dodged some tough issues, such as a controversial bottle tax proposed by Rawlings-Blake in the spring. Young did not vote on the tax, claiming a cousin worked for a bottling company, but staffers quietly lobbied against it. The tax passed without Young's support.

And relations have been strained between Young and Rawlings-Blake, who had supported Councilman William H. Cole IV's bid for the council presidency.

Stokes, who was appointed to fill Young's seat on the council, said the tension could prompt Young to challenge Rawlings-Blake.

"If they keep going after him and giving him so much grief, he's going to run against her," he said.

If Mfume is in, Stokes is out

Cole, whom many expect to run for president's seat, said that he does not plan to make a decision until January, but is leaning toward running for re-election representing the district that includes the downtown area.

Council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger III, who represents South Baltimore, is also considering a bid for the president's seat. Former Baltimore NAACP president Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham is also weighing his options, but said he would not run against Young.

And Stokes, whose 1999 mayoral bid was derailed after a series of gaffes, is considering entering the race. He has been raising funds and starting a number of high-profile initiatives, such as encouraging churches to start clean up and violence prevention programs in the neighborhoods that surround them.

Stokes said he has not decided whether to run for office, or to step away from politics and focus on his job as chief financial officer at a city charter school.

Two things are certain, Stokes said: He would not run against Young for the council president's seat, and if Mfume were to enter the mayor's race, he would not run against the former congressman.

While political observers say that Mfume would pose a substantial challenge, supporters have predicted he would run — then watched him stay on the sidelines — for several elections. Although Mfume owns a home in Catonsville, his primary residence remains downtown in the Harbor Courts development.

He has a personal reason not to challenge Rawlings-Blake. Her father, the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, pushed Mfume to enter the 1999 mayoral race.

When Mfume chose not to run, Rawlings-Blake persuaded her father to back Martin O'Malley's mayoral campaign, setting the groundwork for an enduring political loyalty. Rawlings-Blake enthusiastically campaigned for the governor this year, and his well-organized political operation is expected to return the favor for her next year.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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