Challengers emerge to Rawlings-Blake in 2011 mayor's race

Otis Rolley, Frank Conaway Sr. and others seek top spot

November 14, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has coped with a pair of historic blizzards, closed a record budget deficit and overhauled the police and fire pension system since taking office in February.

Now, at 40, she is gearing up for her biggest challenge yet: keeping the position she filled when Sheila Dixon resigned earlier this year.

With fewer than 10 months to go until Baltimore's primary election, several candidates have already said they will run against Rawlings-Blake, who was elected City Council president by a tidy margin in 2007 and automatically elevated when Dixon's legal problems created a vacancy.

Otis Rolley, 36, who created the city's first master plan in 2006 while working for then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, has launched a campaign website and is aggressively raising funds.

Frank Conaway Sr., 77, the clerk of the Circuit Court, has announced a bid, saying the city needs "a father figure." And state Sen. Catherine Pugh, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Carl Stokes are all said to be considering a run for mayor.

Perhaps the most formidable name that some mention — as has been the case for mayoral races stretching back more than a decade — is Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and past president of the NAACP.

Mfume denies that he is planning a campaign, but he chooses his words carefully, leaving open the possibility that he could launch a bid for the city's highest office early next year.

"I'm not contemplating running for anything right now. I'm concentrating on helping to lead the National Medical Association," a group which Mfume has led since March that advocates for African-American doctors and patients.

Candidates have until July to file for the $155,000-a-year position, which means there is plenty of time for the players to shift before the primary election. With Baltimore's overwhelmingly Democratic voter registration, the winner of the primary is all but assured of the job.

Many potential candidates say that they don't plan to make an announcement until the new year begins.

Pugh is rumored to be considering a campaign. "I'm focused on the upcoming General Assembly session and chairing the Legislative Black Caucus," Pugh said.

But candidates can't wait too long to start fundraising, says Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"They have to announce early enough to start raising enough money to be viable," said Norris.

And a crowded field of candidates means that Rawlings-Blake and her top contenders will need to raise significantly more funds, he said. Those knowledgeable about city campaigns think the winner will spend about $1 million.

As the current officeholder, Rawlings-Blake brings a major advantage to the race, Norris said. Incumbent candidates have an edge on fundraising and command the most media attention, he said.

"Anytime Stephanie Rawlings-Blake does something of note, she's in the paper, she's on TV," he said. "Her opponents don't have that luxury." The mayor has about $191,000 in her campaign account, records show.

And Rawlings-Blake is the only candidate who can point to a record in the mayor's office.

She unveiled a strategy for coping with the city's persistent problems of vacant homes, filled longstanding vacancies in some of the city's top offices and pushed through a package of new taxes and service cuts to close a $121 million budget hole.

And Rawlings-Blake implemented broad and long-needed changes to the public safety pension plan, which are estimated to save the city $400 million over five years, but provoked a bitter response from the police and fire unions. The unions sued the city over the pension issue in federal court and have picketed political fundraisers and posted billboards castigating the mayor and council.

Critics contend that the mayor could struggle in a citywide election, because of her reserved nature in public appearances. Rawlings-Blake insists her serious and thoughtful demeanor should not be confused with a lack of enthusiasm.

"If I wasn't passionate about moving the city forward, why .. would I fix the pension system?" she said. "I could have made the tiniest of fixes and skated through until the election. My obligation and duty as mayor are to make those tough decisions. My deeds speak to my passion. I could say it with pom-poms in my hands, but I think that's silly."

Caretaker not needed

Rolley, the challenger with the most-organized campaign, is well-known in political and business circles but has little name recognition with the general public. He says his background in planning and expertise in housing and transportation make him best equipped to run the city.

"Baltimore is at a tipping point," Rolley said. "We know we could be a world-class city, but we're not there yet. I think Baltimore is ready for a leader who has a plan and can implement that plan."

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