Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is in San Francisco this weekend to be sworn in as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors — a position she says she'll use to advocate for fixes to Baltimore's entrenched problems.
"The systemic issues we have in cities ... are problems we cannot solve alone," she said in an interview. "I intend to use my role as president to advocate for those very specific needs, whether it's food access, education, poverty or neighborhood investment."
Rawlings-Blake will become the first African-American woman to hold the influential leadership position, and the first Baltimorean.
Many see her election as a positive development — both for her and the city — but others question whether it will cause her be out of town too much in the aftermath of April's rioting.
"It's a nice feather in her cap," said John Dedie, an assistant professor of political science at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex. "But I think the people of Baltimore want her in Baltimore out doing things. After 9/11, one of the messages [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani said was, 'Keep shopping. Keep going out. Keep our economy going.' … She needs to be focused on bringing Baltimore back."
Max Hilaire, chairman of Morgan State University's political science department, said he sees nothing but upside to the mayor's new position.
"I think it's good for Baltimore and it's also good for the mayor," Hilaire said. "It certainly gives her some national recognition in a positive light instead of being recognized nationally for the horrors of the Freddie Gray case. She'll be meeting with hundreds of mayors, some of them with similar problems. I don't see it as taking away from what needs to be done in Baltimore."
Baltimore suffered rioting April 27 hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray, 25, who died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Six police officers face criminal charges in his arrest and death. The case drew national attention to West Baltimore, the site of Gray's arrest, where community members say they've suffered for years from high crime, poverty, a lack of educational opportunities and police brutality.
The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation of policing practices here.
"We all know that Baltimore took a big hit recently," said Tom Cochran, executive director of the Conference of Mayors. "I see [Rawlings-Blake] as resolute and very committed to work openly with the Justice Department and other mayors and police chiefs. We're all in it together. She'll be leading that effort, and I feel we will get to where we need to be."
The mayors of cities with populations greater than 30,000 are gathering Friday in San Francisco, where Rawlings-Blake will be sworn in Monday. She was elected second vice president of the organization two years ago, putting her in a line of succession to become president.
President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton are both speaking at this weekend's meeting. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who also is running for the Demopcratic nomination for president, is speaking as well.
Rawlings-Blake joins a list of well-known mayors who have served as president of the organization since the 1930s, including New York's Fiorello H. La Guardia, Chicago's Richard J. Daley and New Orleans' Moon Landrieu.
"I'll be the first mayor of Baltimore on that list," she said. "It is certainly an honor for my city."
Cochran said Rawlings-Blake will act as the organization's top spokeswoman during her one-year term, and will lead the group's efforts in setting an agenda for cities across the country.
"She's been elected by her peers," he said. "It's one of the highest honors you can have as a mayor. For one year, she's America's mayor. It's a very powerful position."
Cochran said the duties of president will require Rawlings-Blake to preside over monthly meetings of the organization's leadership team in Washington. As she serves in the post, she also will be running for re-election as Baltimore's mayor. The Democratic primary is April 26.
Rawlings-Blake, who also is secretary of the Democratic National Committee, already has a busy travel schedule.
A Baltimore Sun analysis of her travel last year showed she and her security detail made two dozen out-of-state trips in 2013 — about two a month — for a total of 73 days away. That year, Rawlings-Blake visited Panama with Vice President Joe Biden and attended summits in Utah, New York and Louisiana. She campaigned for Cory Booker as he ran for Senate in New Jersey and rallied young Democrats in San Antonio. She also went to three conferences in Las Vegas.
Rawlings-Blake argues her new position will enhance, not detract from, her work as mayor.
"When I became mayor, nobody was checking for Baltimore as far as national profile for leadership," Rawlings-Blake said. "When you're president, you have the opportunity to advocate on a national level. I can't think of a more important time to have that visibility when we have so many significant needs in our city."
She said she looks forward to bringing mayors from around the county to Baltimore in September for a conference the organization is planning.
"It's important that we put the urban agenda on the map," Rawlings-Blake said. "We have issues that need to be at the forefront, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. More than 80 percent of the country lives in metro areas."
John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University, said the position could help both the mayor's and the city's image nationally.
"Baltimore has been seen in a certain light," said Bullock, who lives in Baltimore's Union Square neighborhood. "Her leadership has been questioned. This will put her in another light. Given all the needs right now, people might say she needs to be focused on Baltimore. On the other hand, this may help her bring national attention and resources to Baltimore's issues."