Incoming mayor returns to father's stomping grounds

January 13, 2010|By Julie Scharper | Baltimore Sun reporter

It was the first day of the Maryland General Assembly session, but as Baltimore City Council President and soon-to-be-mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake wove through the aisles Wednesday, it seemed more like a family reunion.

The legislators hugged, kissed and all but pinched the cheeks of Rawlings-Blake, daughter of the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, a State House legend. Some reminisced about her childhood, when she tailed her father through the hallways. Many assured Rawlings-Blake that her father was beaming down from heaven.

But beneath the cheer and good wishes, there was a sense of the daunting challenges the 39-year-old will face in the weeks ahead. Rawlings-Blake, who is to be sworn in as mayor Feb. 4, after the resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon, must seek funds for the city from legislators charged with slashing $2 billion from the state budget. She will be forced to cut jobs and services to trim as much as $190 million from the city's budget. And the process will be complicated by the fact that she will assume her new role during the middle of the legislative session.

"I don't envy her," said longtime state Sen. George W. Della Jr., who represents South Baltimore. "She's coming in at a terrible time -- the unfortunate circumstances [of Dixon's resignation], the problems with the budget. It's a horrendous position to be thrown into public office at this point in time."

Rawlings-Blake said her strong relationships with legislators -- some of them stretching back decades -- will be an asset during the transition. "Those relationships are already there," she said. "I've been here quite a few times before." Of course, one relationship loomed over all the others.

"I remember standing there on the side, watching my dad take the oath of office for the first time when I was a little girl," Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday evening after she had returned to Baltimore and participated in a neighborhood walk. "There were some emotional moments."

Rawlings-Blake was hopeful that the impact of the mayoral transition would be minimal. "I think it was very important for me to be there today for the legislators to see the continuity," she said, adding that she routinely visited the State House and testified before legislators during her tenure on the council.

She will earn the respect of voters, said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, if she can secure funding from the legislature and balance the city's budget without major cuts to services.

"When she has to make her first tough decision, people are going to respect her for it," he said. "People might think she doesn't have the spine to make those tough decisions. But if she does show herself to have the stamina to face all of these budget issues, I think that will earn her a spontaneous vote of confidence."

Although she will not officially become mayor for several weeks, Rawlings-Blake sat with other city officials at the opening ceremonies in the House of Delegates. In the Senate chamber, Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden introduced her as "the next mayor of the great city of Baltimore."

Although the city has been through "trying times," McFadden said, "where we come from, when one door closes, two open."

Veteran city lobbyist Diane Hutchins whisked Rawlings-Blake through the State House halls, stopping by the offices of Democratic leaders in both houses. The city's legislative goals include toughening gun laws and preserving funding, Hutchins said, adding that some details "are still being worked out" due to the transition of power.

Rawlings-Blake said Hutchins and Mary Pat Fannon, a key witness in Dixon's criminal case, would remain the city's lobbyists during the session.

After a brief meeting behind closed doors, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that he had pledged to help Rawlings-Blake. "We're going to do everything we can do to make her administration a success," he said.

Miller, who worked with Delegate Rawlings for decades, said he was struck by the father-daughter resemblance. "All I have to do is look at her -- I see his facial expressions, his work ethic," he said. "I'm very proud to see his daughter in this position."

Del. James E. Proctor, vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, embraced Rawlings-Blake and said he thought of her father when he learned she would become mayor. "I looked up and I said, 'You're flapping your wings now,'ƒ|" Proctor said.

Rawlings, who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee until his death in 2003, would bring his daughter with him to the legislature a few times each year to "show her off," Proctor recalled.

Rawlings-Blake took the opportunity to network with leaders of a neighboring jurisdiction, eating lunch at Galway Bay, an Irish restaurant, with Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and two delegates from that county.

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