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Unrest after Freddie Gray's death puts spotlight on Hogan, Rawlings-Blake

Unrest in Baltimore put on display the widely different leadership styles that Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake brought to a crisis that could come to define their administrations.

As Hogan toured inner-city neighborhoods Thursday, glad-handing with residents who likely never voted for him, Baltimore's mayor was cloistered in a private meeting with supporters.

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All week, the new Republican governor calmly told Marylanders he would deploy all necessary resources to restore order in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody sparked demonstrations. The veteran Democratic mayor found herself on the defensive, trying to walk back an awkward comment about the mayhem and defending her record.

"Some folks have had the impression that the mayor has been indifferent and aloof and the governor has been more active, coming in to save Baltimore from its inclination to implode," said the Rev. Todd Yeary of Douglas Memorial Community Church in West Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake's pastor.

The characterization oversimplifies the politicians' roles, Yeary and others said, but that bumper-sticker version nonetheless has come to define them.

"Perception, unfortunately, can be reality," said the Rev. Delman Coates, an influential pastor from Prince George's County who ran for lieutenant governor last year. "You can argue with the reality, but in this media-driven, technology-driven environment, perception becomes reality."

Political experts say the national attention could help Hogan, a political neophyte who took office just 100 days earlier, and hurt Rawlings-Blake, who has been seen as a rising star in Democratic circles.

"If she had any statewide ambitions, those are over," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist.

Rawlings-Blake has also toured West Baltimore, visiting churches and deploying volunteers, handing out sandwiches, chatting at schools and assuring residents that they will rebuild. But that has largely been missed in the national cacophony of coverage.

The mayor's immediate political ambitions were unclear even before the Gray case. She had said she was seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, and she had been working to elevate her profile in Washington by taking a position with the Democratic National Committee and appearing frequently on the Sunday political shows. Some observers had concluded that Rawlings-Blake would run for re-election next year and possibly seek higher office in 2018.

Rawlings-Blake, a politician known for her measured style, drew broad criticism for remaining behind closed doors for hours Monday while the city erupted in violence. She said later that she was busy arranging for help from county police departments.

When she spoke of protecting protesters' First Amendment rights, her poor phrasing led to an uproar. "We also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that," she said.

She spent two days explaining that she meant she did not want the military to antagonize demonstrators who had legitimate concerns.

"There are not enough media dollars to explain ... that the response was not intended to create another riot," Sheinkopf said.

From a nuts-and-bolt policy perspective, Sheinkopf said, being cautious about bringing in the National Guard was probably a reasonable approach. But from a political perspective, he said, the response can be viewed as indecision.

By Thursday, Rawlings-Blake had become animated, defending her administration on national television and pointing out that police brutality cases have declined on her watch.

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"And now to stand here and say I don't care?" she said of her critics, her voice rising. "I'm not even going to tolerate it."

She connected herself to Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, who pursued charges against the officers involved in Gray's arrest, and new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whose Justice Department is conducting a civil rights probe of city police.

"We will get justice for Freddie Gray. Believe you me, we will get justice," Rawlings-Blake said. "If, with the nation watching, three black women at three different levels can't get justice and healing for this community, you tell me where we're going to get it in our country."

But with the nation watching, it was Hogan who was earning accolades for his decisive focus on keeping the peace. He relocated his entire Cabinet from Annapolis to an office in Baltimore and said he called in the National Guard "30 seconds" after he was asked.

"Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has had more better days than bad days. But the problem is that the one bad day she had was the most important day," said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. "She was not as visible as she should have been."

Morrill said Rawlings-Blake's careful approach might be exactly what is needed to help rebuild the city and repair trust with residents. The problem, he said, is that most people outside Baltimore won't see those efforts as closely as they saw her slow response Monday.

"She got defined nationally, and all the other work she has done up until now is completely subsumed in that one image of how she handled the riots," Morrill said. "It hurt her nationally."

By contrast, Morrill gave Hogan generally high marks for being visible and engaged. He said the governor's early decision to move operations to Baltimore was particularly smart.

"He's been in the city; he's done what a governor should have done," Morrill said. "His operating refrain of sort of being in charge and taking charge was good on that one day of the crisis."

But Morrill said there is danger in Hogan pressing too much on the theme.

"He's overused the sense of being in charge," Morrill said. "There's only so much that you can do as governor. UItimately, calm didn't come because of the governor. It came because the city leadership took over."

On the streets of West Baltimore, Hogan was largely embraced by residents who told him that next, he needs to deliver resources to help rebuild the community — recreation centers, housing, jobs programs and money for schools.

"You're a man's man," said Andre Torrence, 40, as he slapped Hogan on the back. "You don't play none of that politics."

Hogan has refused to answer questions about broader social issues that fueled unrest or to comment on the investigation into Gray's death. He hewed closely to his refrain that his sole mission is to restore calm.

He spent a part of every day inviting news media to tail him as he interacted with residents in the city, one of the four localities he lost by big margins in the election. And he relentlessly hammered a single message that resonated, a strategy he also employed in his campaign for governor when he beat a heavily favored Democrat.

"That's what he does," said Russ Schriefer, a national Republican political consultant who worked on Hogan's campaign. "He likes to be out in the public talking to people and hearing their concerns and listening. That quality has served him well in getting through this crisis."

Then, it was that the state's economy needed new leadership. Last week, it was that he and the National Guard he activated in Baltimore for the first time since 1968 could prevent another round of looting, rioting and fires.

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"When you're in the middle of one of these, you get pulled in a million different directions and everyone wants a piece of your time and there's tremendous media attention. It's like being in the middle of hurricane," said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant and former aide to George W. Bush. "Having good instincts when it comes to executive leadership — being able to separate what's important from what is not — is critical."

National observers and pundits were quick to contrast Hogan's more aggressive style with Rawlings-Blake's efforts to strike a balance between keeping the public safe and consoling residents afflicted by poverty and infuriated by allegations of police brutality.

Most often, the comparison was made in unflattering terms for Rawlings-Blake, prompting her advocates to come to her defense.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said on national television that it was time to "end the scapegoating."

"Don't blame the mayor for what the last 50 years of mayors and governors didn't do," he said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, a leading supporter of the mayor on the City Council, acknowledged that "at times, she came off as a woman who was upset and angry at what was going on."

He added, "At the end of the day, she came off as a human being."

Scott played down the possibility that Rawlings-Blake could not recover as she continues to lead the city through the crisis.

"Everything that we do has political ramifications. When you have an event like this, it amplifies it," he said. "Whether it will be positive or negative, that will play out in the coming election."

At Gray's funeral Monday, Rawlings-Blake was met with warm applause, but it was her predecessor and potential opponent in next year's mayor's race, Sheila Dixon, who drew the more enthusiastic response.

Dixon, who resigned after being convicted of embezzlement and was replaced by Rawlings-Blake, then City Council president, received a standing ovation from the crowd when she was introduced. Later, in the silence after the last of the officials and celebrities were acknowledged, someone in the balcony shouted, "We love you, Sheila," leading to a second round of applause.

On Friday, Dixon declined to discuss her political plans or respond directly to questions about Rawlings-Blake. But she did make broad statements about qualities needed in a mayor.

"When you're running a city of such a diverse population, you have to go and be engaged," said Dixon, who said she has spent the past several days meeting with residents and distributing food. "You've also got to be prepared."

As Rawlings-Blake surveyed damage Tuesday at the Lexington Market, customer Charles Forbes, 56, called out to the mayor: "Where do we go from here?"

She replied: "We are going to rebuild."

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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