Staffers say the redistricting plan she is scheduled to unveil Monday reflects a good-faith effort to divide the population evenly, keep neighborhoods whole and respect the racial makeup of the city, as required by federal law.
But critics see political motivations in the map. Changes in East Baltimore could favor a mayoral aide said to be considering a council run this fall. And community leaders in South Baltimore say shifting boundaries there are likely to benefit two sitting council members with close ties to Rawlings-Blake.
"It's pretty clear to me that the mayor has a mission to protect her supporters and to be sure she has enough supporters on the City Council … to guarantee passage of any measure she proposes," said Paul Robinson, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association.
Robinson said Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, who narrowly won re-election in 2007, "was vulnerable, very vulnerable, and the vulnerability becomes less of an issue after the gerrymandering."
Terry Hickey, an attorney who lost to Reisinger in 2007 and planned to run again this year, said the proposal appears "overly convenient" for the incumbent, and makes it difficult for other candidates.
"It puts you at a significant disadvantage," the Locust Point resident said. "You don't know where your donors are going to be, you don't know where the voters are. It's one other obstacle to there being new candidates. The system begets the system."
Council Member William H. Cole IV won his seat easily four years ago. But the former state delegate still stands to benefit from the mayor's proposal, which would add Federal Hill and Locust Point to a district that already contains Downtown and Mount Vernon, combining many of the city's most prosperous neighborhoods.
"It's a powerful position to be in," Robinson said. "It could be the perfect launch pad if he has political ambitions above and beyond his council seat."
A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake rejected the claim that boundaries were drawn to favor incumbents.
Cole said the change proposed for his district "does seem to make a lot of sense." He lives in Otterbein but spends much of his time in Federal Hill, eating at Rallo's or coaching his daughters' sports teams.
"I'm pleased we're able to reconnect neighborhoods again," he said.
Rawlings-Blake's proposal reflects the population shifts of the last decade. The city is estimated to have lost 20,000 residents in that time; all but two of the 14 council districts are believed to have lost population.
A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said the plan reunites more than a dozen neighborhoods that had been divided among more than one district, including Belair-Edison, Guilford, Harlem Park and Poppleton.
To meet a deadline set by city charter, the map had to be redrawn before the release of comprehensive census data. Officials say the proposal is based on reliable estimates, and can be amended once more data is released in February.
Under the charter, a map must be approved by April 1.
Rawlings-Blake's proposal would sweep Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods including Violetville, Gwynns Falls and Pigtown (also known as Washington Village) into Reisinger's district. Council members pledged in 2007 to consolidate Pigtown into one district; it is currently split among three.
Reisinger, who lives in Morrell Park, said he suggested the new boundaries to the mayor not for political reasons but because they make sense.
"The map is conceptual. I'm just trying to look at the similarity of the neighborhoods and trying to make the district more central to where I live at," said Reisinger. "Those communities are close to my community and have similarities — the way the houses are, the people."
The other most dramatic shift occurs on the other side of the Inner Harbor, where Councilman James B. Kraft would gain Greektown and a large swath of industrial Southeast Baltimore and lose Little Italy and part of Butcher's Hill.
Council members had predicted privately that Rawlings-Blake would shear Greektown and its primarily white and Latino population from the district long represented by Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo. He is not seeking re-election this year.
The move increases the concentration of black voters in the district, a shift that presumably favors Brandon M. Scott, a staffer with the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods in East Baltimore who is expected to run for the seat. Scott declined to say if he was running for the council seat and said he was "100 percent focused" on his current job.
D'Adamo, who is white and whose power base was in the district's white ethnic neighborhoods, said he believes Scott could win either way.
"He's a hard worker," he said. "He's a go-getter and people like him and respect him in the district."
Alejandro Necochea, vice president of the Greater Greektown Neighborhood Alliance, said that he was not aware of Scott's possible candidacy or the political motivations ascribed to the redistricting. But he said he would like to see his neighborhood included in a single district.
"It will be easier to reach out just to one councilman in the future," said Necochea, whose group now invites both Kraft and D'Adamo to meetings.
Kraft said he would be comfortable representing Greektown, but expressed concern that Butcher's Hill and Highlandtown would be split among districts.
He says his goal in redistricting is "keeping neighborhoods together and putting neighborhoods together that had been together in the past," said Kraft. "But I did not want to put them together at the expense of taking other neighborhoods apart."
The proposed changes in Central and North Baltimore are not as dramatic as elsewhere, but some still have raised community leaders' eyebrows.
Rawlings-Blake would move lower Remington from the district now represented by Councilwoman Belinda Conaway to the district represented by Councilman Carl Stokes.
Joan Floyd, president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, said her community should stay in Conaway's district, which includes Hampden, which shares Remington's blue collar, mill worker roots.
"We have more in common with Hampden," she said. "History is one thing, socioeconomics is another."
Conaway's district would gain the neighborhoods south of Druid Hill Park. Conaway said she's "very satisfied" with the current makeup of her district and does not wish to see substantial changes.
She and Kraft are co-chairing a committee that will oversee the redistricting process; a preliminary work session is slated for Feb. 8, with a hearing to be scheduled once the Census data is available.
Kraft said the council has retained an attorney who specializes in redistricting to guide the process. Under federal law, the new districts must mirror the racial makeup of the city, which will not be known until the Census data is released.
Hickey, the Locust Point resident considering another run for the council, urged residents to scrutinize the redistricting plans.
"I hope when they see things that look too politically expedient, they question it and force our council members and our mayor to explain the rationale behind it," he said.