City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had long been discussed as a likely candidate to succeed Sheila Dixon as Baltimore's mayor. Still, when she assumed the office on February 4, after Dixon was forced to step down in a plea bargain with prosecutors pursuing theft and perjury charges, it didn't happen quite the way she anticipated. "You would be hard-pressed to find someone to say that they would choose to become mayor like this," the 39-year-old Rawlings-Blake told Baltimore magazine in an exclusive interview days before her inauguration. "I'd rather any other way."
In a wide-ranging discussion, the new mayor talked about the issues she'll face, how her longstanding relationship with Governor Martin O'Malley will benefit Baltimore, the lessons she learned from her father (revered state legislator Howard "Pete" Rawlings, who died in 2003), and the downside of being mayor.
BM: Congratulations on the promotion. How do you feel about it: excited, ready, nervous?
SRB: Definitely ready, sometimes excited. But there's some serious issues that need to be dealt with so every time I get too excited, I just have to review my budget briefing and it brings me back to reality.
BM: What positive and negative lessons did you learn from watching Sheila Dixon as mayor?
SRB: I had a lot of respect for her ability to be decisive, as well as her energy and passion. I strive for that level of energy. I try to balance my natural pensive, contemplative style and what's in my heart, which is a deep desire for the best for Baltimore.
BM: Anything you learned negatively by example?
SRB: I thought that there were ways that the council and the administration could've worked together more. What I hope doesn't change about me is my desire for the best outcome, whether or not my name is first as a contributor to the solution. And if those ideas are coming from a council person who I wouldn't hang out with or that I'm not on the best terms with, that I still have the ability to discern what's good and what's fair.
BM: Is the budget highest on your agenda?
SRB: Definitely. We're looking at a $127 million deficit. We have to deal with that before we can do anything else. The first thing is to look at what we're spending money on. Baltimore is like any family that is looking at a budget that has either no growth in revenue or lower revenue, but the costs continue to go up. As families are doing across the city and country, we're trying to figure out what we can live without.
BM: Your father was a real budget hawk. How much does his career inform the way you think about governing?
SRB: He taught me to be fair and to be honest and to not mince words when it comes to hard decisions. I got to see what happened when he took hard stands for what he believed were very good reasons, and the backlash that he got from taking those positions.
BM: Are there any particular stands that stuck with you?
SRB: Particularly with demanding accountability from his alma mater, Morgan State. I remember students from Morgan saying horribly cruel things about my father, who was demanding excellence on their behalf. But they were given terribly wrong information about his motivations and about what he was doing. My father loved his school, but he loved it enough to demand excellence. People might think [that if] you have a relationship with an institution or a person, you should cut them slack or demand less. I learned from my father, if you love something, love it enough to want the best for it.
BM: Did your family talk politics at the dinner table?
SRB: Yeah, especially when [my dad] would take a call from the Speaker. It's all about relationship-building and maintaining relationships. In government, at any level, you can't call someone and demand that they do one thing or the other. If they don't think that they're acting in the best interests of their constituents, you really can't shove it down their throat. That's what I took away from a lot of their conversations. You have to form coalitions to move forward. There's nothing that you can do on your own when it comes to the working of government.
BM: How do you feel about the work Dr. Andrés Alonso is doing as CEO of city schools?
SRB: I'm very pleased with the work of Dr. Alonso and the school board. Enrollment in our schools is going up for the first time in more than a generation. That's real progress, particularly that people who have other choices are choosing our public schools. That's to the credit of a diverse offering: We have the transformation schools, we have the charter schools, we have neighborhood schools that are on par with some of our city-wide schools. That is creating options that weren't there ten years ago. A lot of times when we look at why we lose population—it's one thing when we say that Canton or Federal Hill attracts young professionals, but as soon as they get married or have a child, they're looking for someplace else.
BM: How do you feel about Commissioner Bealefeld and the direction the Police Department is going?
SRB: The numbers speak for themselves. We've made significant progress. If you look at the last ten years of the previous century and the first ten years of this one, Baltimore is safer. We can do a lot more to expand on that. The priorities are right, focusing on our most violent criminals. That being said, I think there are more opportunities for partnership with the State's Attorney's office, with the federal prosecutors to prosecute more gun crimes.
BM: Some have suggested that you might replace Commissioner Bealefeld since he was not your choice for chief.
SRB: So many times in government, people focus on the personality. 'That's not her commissioner. Can they work together?' One thing I learned for sure from my father is that it's about outcomes and accountability. He partnered with people that were against him, if it meant working for the greater good. I certainly have a good working relationship with Commissioner Bealefeld and I know that we'll be good partners for the progress of our city. But the accountability won't change. I said jokingly before, 'I think he's doing a great job, but if he takes my vote of confidence as a reason to start playing solitaire at his computer, it's not gonna work.' We have to stay focused.
BM: How do you think your close relationship with Governor O'Malley will help you as mayor?
SRB: It means that he gets it, about the priorities of the city, and he doesn't have to second-guess my requests. If I say that this is a priority for the city, there's no underlying message. He understands that it's real.
BM: Since the initial casino bid fell apart, where do things stand with bringing slots to Baltimore City?
SRB: We are working very diligently, particularly with our city delegation in Annapolis to make sure that, on the state law side, there's nothing that would impede us re-bidding the site, and I think we're looking to do that this summer.
BM: And you think that'll help with the budget issue?
SRB: Definitely. Conservative projections give us a reduction of about eight cents [per $100 in assessed value] on property taxes by year five. That's a real difference.
BM: In light of the Dixon trial, you've talked about making changes to the ethics board and pension system. How will that work?
SRB: The current ethics board is, as many things in the city are, weighted toward the mayor. We're looking to diversify how board members get to the table. Also, to restrict who can be a member in a way that creates more integrity on the board. The pension system is a significant problem. It's a $64 million time bomb that we have to get under control. It's going to take action from the council. All of us have great respect and affection for fire and police officers who dedicate so much and they deserve a dignified retirement, but they also deserve one that the city can afford, and we currently can't afford this.
BM: What will be the biggest change in your day-to-day life when you become mayor?
SRB: One of the things that comes with being mayor is that people are concerned about your safety, and that means executive protection. I'm certainly grateful, but I love being by myself. Sometimes you need space to listen to that crappy radio station without somebody thinking, 'Why the heck is she listening to this?' One of the things that I strive for with my daughter, that my parents strived for with me, is normalcy. Sometimes when people meet me, they expect something different because of the position I hold. But I've never been taught to think that I was better than anyone, and I really hope that I instill that in my daughter. For me, being mayor is about doing a job. If I get to go to a reception every once in a while, that's not why I'm in it. I try to stay humble.