The first order of business for Baltimore’s mayor in-waiting, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, was to ever so deliberately open a lifeline to Maryland’s State House and Barack Obama’s White House. Smart move. Her success and the city’s may depend upon it.
There are apparently no niceties involved, either by mutual agreement or ambitious force of will, in the shift of power formally called transition. Rawlings-Blake stepped right up, planted her flag and staked her claim only one day after Mayor Shelia Dixon’s decline and fall and fully 30 days before Dixon’s plea-bargained departure date. Rawlings-Blake, by her own admission, began her round of phone calls within hours after Dixon was declared toast (but with a generous exit plan.)
Dixon was always a welcome and frequent presence in the corners of the State House. But ever since her legal problems began, Dixon was given a very cold shoulder by Obama. When the President appeared in front of City Hall as part of his whistle-stop trip to the inaugural ceremony, for example, Dixon was not invited to share the stage with other local dignitaries but was consigned to the gawking crowd to watch with the hoi polloi.
In Annapolis and Washington pork is power. It’s crucial that Rawlings-Blake, right up front, establish rapport and credibility with the city delegation in Annapolis and the ministers of influence in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Under Democratic presidents, Baltimore had always flourished. The administration of President Jimmy Carter issued UDAG grants like federal walk-around money when the city’s Robert Embry, now president of the Abell Foundation, was assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Hyatt Hotel, for example, was built with UDAG grants.
And under President Bill Clinton, Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo dispatched money to Baltimore by the boatload, a generous habit that almost got both him and the city into trouble with federal auditors. The money enabled the city to blow up the housing projects, scatter the poor with Section 8 vouchers and build slick new townhouses on vacant plots at several downtown locations.
To that end, Baltimore has a strong delegation in the State House where her late father, the esteemed Howard Pete Rawlings, negotiated not only money but also monuments for the city—the Black Museum and the Hippodrome Theater, to name two. And in one of those toothsome roundelays, the Howard Pete Rawlings Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, in Druid Hill Park, is host (January 11) to the briefing on the city’s 2010 legislative agenda. Rawlings-Blake said she will attend but not officiate.
(Pete) Rawlings’ role as the city’s enforcer in the House of Delegates has devolved largely to Del. Maggie MacIntosh (D-40) and to Sen. Lisa Gladden (D-41) in the Senate. They are backstopped by the city’s Office of Government Relations (lobbying), which is headed by Dianne Hutchins, and assisted by Mary Pat Fannin, who testified against Dixon as the recipient of one of the publicly derided gift cards. That office has the professional services of the legendary William C. Ratchford, III, the former director of state legislative services, who now, fortuitously, works for the city as a consultant.
The primary function of the city delegation, in tandem with the lobbying office, is to protect the city’s interests—to make good things happen and, conversely, to prevent bad things from occurring. Rawlings-Blake also has a solid relationship with Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who was the recipient of one of her first phone calls on the night of Dixon’s decapitation. Her father was among the first to break with the black community to endorse O’Malley for mayor in 1999 over two black candidates.
On Capitol Hill, Barbara Mikulski, of Baltimore, is among the most senior senators and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has represented Baltimore in the House of Representatives. And Maryland can claim three of the most powerful members of the House—Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native; House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, of Prince George’s County; and Rep.Chris Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And there is also the growing presence of Rep. Elijah Cummings as a powerful voice for the city, Obama’s Maryland campaign co-chairman who has presidential favor.
Dixon, through no fault of her own, leaves Rawlings-Blake a $120 million budget deficit. Baltimore, in a way, is fortunate that the line of succession is direct from the mayor to the City Council president. Both sit on the Board of Estimates, which processes most financial matters. It is a little known fact that the City Council president, and not the mayor, is actually president of the Board of Estimates, so Rawlings-Blake should be familiar with the intricacies of the budget.
Dixon also leaves behind a capable staff although the rules of the game dictate that her successor gets to choose whomever she wants and pink-slip whomever she doesn’t. She has already asked Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, III and Fire Commissioner Jim Clack to buff up their epaulets and stick around. Dixon was, however, unable to recruit top people for the Health and Recreation Departments because of her uncertain future. Rawlings-Blake may now be able to fill those slots with major talents because tenure of two years, at least, will be part of the package.
At the secondary level, Rawlings-Blake’s job as City Council president becomes vacant when she succeeds Dixon on Feb. 4, the day Dixon’s resignation is effective. The City Council must select its own president, from within or without, and there is no line of succession as there is with mayor. The job does not automatically succeed to the Council’s vice president. Councilman Bernard Jack Young has announced his interest as has Councilman William H. Cole IV, and there is, among the 14 Council members, a former president, Mary Pat Clarke.
So with all the power that’s available to her, and all the daunting decisions she must make, Rawlings-Blake must stop behaving like a reluctant debutante at a Junior League tea, as she sometimes does, and rough it up a little and mix it up a lot. She has already demonstrated a degree of assertiveness in the transition process but the proof is in the follow-through.
Every city has a special rhythm, a beat of its own. Life in Baltimore is the sum total of everything we, the people, do—the cultural institutions, the schools, colleges and universities, the medical complexes, the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, the million dollar condos, the row houses, the restaurants, dives and bars. Cheerleading and hand-grabbing may not be Rawlings-Blake’s style. O’Malley, in a television interview, described Rawlings-Blake as “cerebral” and “methodical.” That casts her in the “cogito, ergo sum” model of former Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
But when all is said and done, there is nothing more important than the fundamentals of governance—public safety, plowing snow, removing trash and filling an occasional pothole. William Donald Schaefer knew that. Sheila Dixon knew that. Now it’s up to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to show that she understands that. People expect it.