Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reflects on the successes and setbacks her administration has seen over her tenure. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's tenure started off strong. She provided a clean break from the scandalous end of the Sheila Dixon administration, and she set about tackling a series of unglamorous but vexing problems with no-nonsense efficiency. But time and circumstance magnified what initially seemed like minor faults — the detachment and dismissiveness with which she snapped "don't call me Stephanie" to a resident at a public meeting morphed into petty feuds with other local officials over things like the municipal phone system, and eventually into a leadership blackout when rioting spread across West Baltimore.
We believe Ms. Rawlings-Blake made the right decision for the city when she chose not to run for re-election, and we eagerly anticipate the possibilities for a fresh start provided by the election of Catherine Pugh as mayor and by the host of smart, ambitious new members who will be sworn in to seats on the City Council. But for all the criticism we have heaped on Mayor Rawlings-Blake, particularly during the last years of her tenure, we believe it is important to recognize the substantial contributions she has made. Here, then, are some of the things she has done well.
•Manage the city's finances. Ms. Rawlings-Blake faced a $121 million projected budget shortfall the day she took office, and she set a pattern of diligent work to control costs in ways that minimized the impact on services while avoiding increases to Baltimore's property tax (though not shying away from other means to boost the city's coffers). More than merely navigating Baltimore's annual budget woes, Ms. Rawlings-Blake took it upon herself to develop the city's first-ever 10-year financial assessment and plan. It not only included an honest assessment of Baltimore's liabilities but also set out a comprehensive, pro-growth agenda designed to attract more people and businesses to the city. Mayor Rawlings-Blake has cut property taxes for homeowners — not as much as critics want but more than any of her predecessors in modern times, and in a way that has not risked blowing a hole in the budget.
•Grow the economy. The unemployment rate in Baltimore has dropped from 11.6 percent the month Ms. Rawlings-Blake took office to 6.1 percent as of October. More Baltimore residents have jobs now than at any point since 1997, a time when the city's population was more than 50,000 greater. Baltimore is undergoing a building boom, with cranes in the sky not just in the new Gold Coast of Harbor East and Harbor Point but also in the traditional central business district, neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, South Baltimore and near the East and West Baltimore bioparks. New jobs are sprouting up from the Amazon.com warehouse on the eastern edge of the city to Morgan Stanley's offices downtown. Kevin Plank's Port Covington project promises development on a scale the city hasn't seen in decades, and small-scale redevelopment projects, assisted in part by the mayor's Vacants to Value program, are now taking root far from the waterfront in places like Hampden, Remington and Station North. Baltimore still grapples with intense poverty and inequality, and access to the new jobs being created remains a major problem. But Baltimore's economy is showing greater signs of life across a variety of sectors than it has in years.
•Make unpopular but necessary decisions. Pension reform isn't a winning issue for a big city mayor — it hurts politically in the short term, and its benefits aren't felt for years. Mayor Rawlings-Blake pushed through changes to the pension system for police officers and fire fighters that required higher contributions from both employees and the city but also eliminated a ruinous benefit that led to major increases in pension payments in years when the stock market performed well (without taking them back in years when stocks stagnated or declined). The unions erected billboards decrying her and sued in federal court. Ms. Rawlings-Blake stuck to her guns, and she tackled other employee benefits as well, netting tens of millions in annual savings for the city.
To be sure, Ms. Rawlings-Blake's tenure included some of Baltimore's worst moments, but in other ways it set the stage for greater progress and prosperity. If Ms. Pugh realizes in her vision of ensuring that all Baltimoreans reap the benefits of that success, she will do so on the shoulders of Ms. Rawlings-Blake's accomplishments.