`Confident' council president bitten early by political bug

Rawlings-Blake known for quiet, steady style

August 31, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,[Sun Reporter]

Her law school friends were studying for the bar exam and worrying about which firm to join, but Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake was preparing for something else.

That summer, fresh out of the University of Maryland, the 25-year-old daughter of one of the state's most influential leaders put her law degree in a drawer and started knocking on doors in Northwest Baltimore. It was an election year. Everything else would wait.

"She said, `I'm gonna see if I can do more,'" said Eric L. Bryant, a longtime friend of Rawlings-Blake, recalling the conversation the two had when she decided to run for City Council. "She told me as a matter of fact."

With the factual, unemotional style that has come to define her leadership, Rawlings-Blake won that year by more than 5,000 votes, becoming the youngest person ever elected to the council. This year, now 37, she is running for City Council president -- a considerably more ambitious goal -- in an extremely tight race.

Running in a citywide election for the first time, Rawlings-Blake faces community activist Michael Sarbanes and City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. She has served as president since January, when she was elected by her council colleagues to fill the vacancy created when Sheila Dixon became mayor.

During 12 years on the council -- including seven as its vice president -- Rawlings-Blake has not been a radical voice for change or outspoken on many of the city's pressing issues. In the past eight months, she has rarely challenged Dixon directly, nor has she used her power to enact any significant legislation of her own crafting.

She has, however, developed a reputation as a behind-the-scenes negotiator who effects change through compromise. This year, she persuaded the Dixon administration to set aside $1 million in surplus money for a program that helps homeowners pay for restoration projects, and she was one of the first elected officials to highlight the shortage of police officers.

"She has a terrific integrity and a terrific background, and that's what sold me in the beginning," said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, the dean of the council, who was introduced to Rawlings-Blake through her father, Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

Rawlings-Blake helped change the face of state politics when she persuaded her father to back a white councilman from Northeast Baltimore for mayor in 1999. This year, now-Gov. Martin O'Malley is working hard to return the favor. O'Malley formally endorsed her in July -- a month before he backed a mayoral candidate -- and has also helped with fundraising.

Recalling the 1999 race, O'Malley said that when he first met Rawlings, the head of the House Appropriations Committee told him he didn't have a chance to be mayor. But Rawlings-Blake won over her father, and his support gave O'Malley credibility in the majority black city.

"She has always been consistent; she's also unflappable. I think she has a lot of security and confidence, which allows her to keep an open mind," O'Malley said. Asked what makes her right for the job, he said: "Her steadiness, her commitment, her fairness and her sense of balance."

Rawlings-Blake was raised in the Ashburton neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore in a house that also served as a medical office for her mother, Dr. Nina Rawlings, a now-retired pediatrician. Dr. Rawlings remembers how her daughter, then in her teens, would sit and talk with patients while they waited for care.

"She really took it seriously. I had some little girls who didn't have many positive role models. I would just have her come down and sit and talk with them, and ask them questions about their life," Dr. Rawlings said.

She graduated from Western High School in 1988, where she played the flute and the oboe. With a passion for music -- especially jazz -- Rawlings-Blake chose Oberlin College in Ohio because the school offered strong programs in both music and politics. While still at Oberlin, she ran for state central committee in Baltimore.

It is no surprise, given her upbringing, that Rawlings-Blake was powerfully gripped by politics. Her father, a child of Baltimore public housing, spent a quarter-century in the General Assembly, exposing her to the city's most important leaders at the time, such as Sen. Verda Freeman Welcome, Maryland's first black female state senator.

"I've been interested in politics since I was 7 and 8, because of my dad but not just because of him, but because of the people who mentored him," Rawlings-Blake said. "I was telling someone about Senator Welcome. I used to look to her almost like she had an aura around her. Because that's how much respect I had for her. She was such an incredible person to me."

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