The upheaval that followed the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 had an undeniable effect on the political career of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Just as she was getting ready for a re-election campaign against her predecessor, she decided to leave public office. She will have been in Baltimore city government for 21 years when her term ends in December.
But Rawlings-Blake was already facing challenges before the unrest.
One indication came when she was introduced at Gray’s funeral a received a half-hearted round of applause. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon received cheers and applause that lasted more than 30 seconds.
Retired Johns Hopkins University Political Science Professor Matthew Crenson says the crowd was speaking more to Rawlings-Blake than to Dixon.
“I think they were saying whatever Sheila may have done, we felt that the city was doing well then,” says Crenson, who adds Dixon has a better public image than Rawlings-Blake, despite being forced from office in a corruption scandal.
“What Dixon did was to project the image of an energetic, effective mayor,” he says. “It’s what Rawlings-Blake seems to be incapable of doing.”
John Willis, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore, says a mayor’s public image, built through radio, television and newspaper reports, helps build public trust.
“The media is an important part of building that relationship between the public and whatever office you hold,” he says.
Rawlings-Blake declined to comment through her assistant Lindsay Hill. Hill said neither the mayor nor her spokesman, Howard Libit, felt comfortable answering questions regarding her critics.
Mayor vs. the media
Rawlings-Blake has been combative at times with the media.
Two years ago, she rebuked a reporter for asking her about homicide clearance rates when she was announcing a drop in homicides for the first half of 2014.
“I know it’s very difficult for you to see any positive news in what we’re doing; you are very glass half empty,” she said.
When asked about about complaints her administration favored downtown development over revitalizing neighborhoods, she said “I’m sick of people asking questions that don’t make sense.”
Willis says fighting the media is not helpful for a mayor trying to achieve a policy objective.
“There may be members of the public that agree with you, but in terms of accomplishing your objectives, it ultimately is going to harm your objectives,” he says.
The public view
Critics also have complained that Rawlings-Blake is aloof and projects no sense of urgency.
“Where’s our mayor?” Sandtown resident Sheila Conway asked during protests outside of the Western District Police Station last year. “Where she at? She ain’t here.”
Ebony Diggs, of East Baltimore, who was outside a mayor’s event in Edmonson Village Tuesday, said Rawlings-Blake is disconnected with the community.
“She’s not in the community,” she said. “If you not in it, you can’t be really for it; you only see what you see.”
Her brother, Jezber Diggs, said he wants a mayor that is “not afraid of” the public.
“See how you’re standing here solo by yourself [interviewing people]?” he asked. “I don’t think she would do that; I think she is afraid of some of the public.”
Both professors Willis and Crenson say Rawlings-Blake had a perfect opportunity to prove her critics wrong during the unrest, but she missed it.
Crenson says she could have been highly visible; fitting the image of the messiah mayor that cities have long looked towards to solve problems. But that’s not her style.
“She more than most, I think, fell short of projecting that image,” Crenson says, while at the same time cautioning that projecting that image “doesn’t necessarily mean you’re accomplishing anything.”
Willis says the mayor knows the issues and has been governing. But she’s often frustrated with getting people to understand her thought process behind decisions.
“When that frustration comes through, it’s not received well by either the council or the public,” he says.
Both observers say the mayor has a mixed record when it comes to how she has governed after the riots and that history will be much kinder to her. Crenson in particular credits Rawlings-Blake for not losing a single life during the unrest.