Why the Baltimore Mayor's Decision Not to Run for Re-Election Could Hurt the City More

by | September 15, 2015

By Yvonne Wenger, Doug Donovan and John Fritze

She prayed with friends. She consulted political allies and business leaders. She spoke with her husband, mother and 11-year-old daughter.

For nearly two months, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has contemplated ending her re-election bid, according to longtime aides. The Democratic mayor kept those plans hidden from most top officials at City Hall, but there were signs that she was not primed for another campaign: She was avoiding the fundraising calls that are crucial to any re-election effort, and her headquarters office in Remington lacked the political supplies needed to open.

Kaliope Parthemos, the mayor's chief of staff and a lifelong friend, said fundraising was a burden on the mayor as she was tackling critical decisions for the city during a time of upheaval. "She was not doing what a candidate would do," Parthemos said. "Her heart wasn't in it, as much as everyone around her tried to push."

By withdrawing from the 2016 race, Rawlings-Blake said Friday, she could avoid the distractions of a campaign and focus on governing a city on edge over the trials of six police officers charged in Freddie Gray's arrest and death. Supporters championed the move as a sign of the mayor's selflessness. Detractors say she simply saw no path to victory with lagging approval ratings and a race loaded with credible contenders.

Whatever the motivation, some observers say, Rawlings-Blake's decision could make governing harder -- not easier -- as Baltimore faces a critical period in rebounding from April's rioting. As a lame-duck mayor with little political leverage, she could struggle to garner support for programs over the final 15 months of her term, they say. And she is likely to have trouble recruiting top talent if Cabinet officials leave for new jobs, creating more turmoil at City Hall.

"I don't think she'll be able to govern more or better having made this decision," said Lenneal Henderson, an emeritus public affairs professor at the University of Baltimore. "You have to be able to build coalitions based on your supporters and your opponents' estimates of your power base. If that base has been compromised, you might not be able to do the things you could do when you had more leverage."

As mayoral candidates corral supporters, Rawlings-Blake may not be able to rally the public for help.

"She lost that authority in April," Henderson said, referring to the criticism over Rawlings-Blake's handling of the riots. "She lost a lot of credibility and confidence and trust that she could address a situation definitively and quickly. She can't get that back."

Not all officials and experts agree with that assessment.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he spoke repeatedly with the mayor in recent days, including at 6 a.m. on the day of her announcement. The Rawlings-Blake ally said her decision won't hamstring her ability to lead.

"Cities go through transitions every eight years," Cummings said. "She'll be able to voice her opinion in the way that she wants to, so I think she'll be able to get a lot done."

Cummings, who dismissed the idea of running for mayor himself, rejected the idea that Rawlings-Blake's political vulnerabilities played a role in her decision. Several local officials have said that recent polls show the mayor with low approval ratings and Rawlings-Blake acknowledged in her news conference that her ratings have taken a dip.

With nearly eight months to go before the Democratic primary, she had plenty of time to mount a campaign, Cummings said.

"She never mentioned a poll to me ever, never mentioned a poll," he said. "She felt that she had accomplished a lot. One of the main things she talked about was her daughter. She wanted to have time to spend with her."

Rawlings-Blake, 45, struck a confident, solitary figure standing in a ceremonial room at City Hall to deliver the news Friday morning. Her family had offered to stand around her during the announcement, Parthemos said. But the mayor insisted on delivering the news alone.

That didn't stop relatives -- her mother, aunt, brother, cousin and others -- from showing up.

"She wanted to own it and be done with it," Parthemos said.

The mayor first broke the news to her closest aides on Thursday, around 3:30 p.m. She called five of them into her office, one by one, to explain her decision and to get them moving on a news conference. She met with her Cabinet at 9 a.m. Friday, an hour before her public announcement.

Cabinet members didn't know what was coming when they gathered around a table just a few yards from the spot where reporters would soon flock for the news conference. The mayor walked in with a smile and made jokes, said her spokesman, Kevin Harris.

Then she explained her decision.

"A lot of people were shocked by her news," Harris recalled. "Next thing she said was, 'Here's what that means for you: Yesterday, tomorrow, it's the same thing. The expectation is that you come in here and bust your butt. We have 15 months to go.'"

Harris said she finished by giving Cabinet members a pep talk about having a "moment of opportunity" to accomplish goals without worrying about the political impact on a re-election campaign.

She also thanked them for their work over the last few months, and urged them to press on. "The best you can do to keep your [position] is to get something done," Rawlings-Blake said, according to Harris.

Parthemos said some people were "teary-eyed" and some were sad.

On Saturday, Rawlings-Blake drifted among dozens of well-wishers who gathered in what would have been her re-election headquarters, a spartan room devoid of a single sign suggesting a political campaign. She had planned a weekend event to mark the opening of the office, but that was scrapped due to Friday's announcement.

As television cameras followed her around in the somber setting, Rawlings-Blake hugged supporters of her nearly two-decade run in public office.

"It's a tough pill to swallow" for them, she said. "Many of these people have been on that journey with me. I have to remind them that I'm still alive."

Mereida Goodman, a community organizer from Northwest Baltimore, said she was stunned when the announcement landed in her inbox Friday. Goodman listed the criticisms leveled at Rawlings-Blake -- that she doesn't smile enough, that she doesn't seem personable enough, that she wasn't visible enough as the rioting unfolded -- and dismissed them.

"It reminds me of Barack Obama. No matter what he does, he gets criticized," Goodman said. "No matter what she does or did, she's criticized."

Rawlings-Blake's predecessors kept their distance from analyzing the news. Martin O'Malley, who was mayor from the end of 1999 to early 2007, became governor and is now running for president, did not respond to a request for comment. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now the president of the University of Baltimore, declined to be interviewed.

"The mayor has made a tough, but wise decision," Schmoke said in a statement. "I, and many of my colleagues in the university community, look forward to working with her over the next 15 months on the issues that comprise the One Baltimore agenda."

But some experts say Rawlings-Blake's announcement creates a City Hall power vacuum that will extend for an extraordinarily long period of time. Baltimore's primary election doesn't take place until April 26 and the mayor's term won't end until next December.

During that time it will be difficult for Rawlings-Blake to hire national talent -- such as a new police commissioner -- or push an agenda, some experts said. Though she may be freed from the constraints of the campaign trail, she also will not be forced to defend her policies to voters in a way that could ultimately make them stronger.

"It does create an unusually long horizon in which there's still a sitting mayor but her power is diminished," said Matthew Dallek, a professor at the graduate school of political management at George Washington University. "Rather than freeing her up, it could make her less influential on some of the core issues."

Dallek, who worked on Capitol Hill for years, noted that President Lyndon B. Johnson sounded many of the same themes when he decided against running for re-election in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. In a televised address that shocked the nation, Johnson said he didn't want to "devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes" at a critical time.

Nearly five decades later, historians still argue over what motivated that decision -- and whether it was based in part on a fear of losing a re-election bid.

Longtime observers of Baltimore politics said Rawlings-Blake's decision could benefit the city.

"Let's face it, for all practical purposes, she has already been a lame duck," said Matthew Crenson, emeritus professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "She's had staff turnover, she's gotten lots of criticism -- much of it from people in her own party. I think in a way this is going to be a plus for her."

Crenson -- who has previously worked for Carl Stokes, a councilman running for mayor -- said the move could isolate her from any damaging information that emerges about City Hall during the trial of the officers charged Gray's arrest and death. It also immunizes her from stinging and repeated criticism leveled by the Baltimore police union in recent months.

"She probably has a freer hand to manage the Police Department," he said.

But that department is being run by an interim commissioner, Kevin Davis, and it may be difficult for the mayor to recruit a commissioner, given the limited job security. "Nobody from outside is going to come to town to be the police commissioner for 15 months," Crenson said.

Bruce Katz, founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, said lame-duck mayors have plenty of opportunity, particularly at a time when the federal government is funneling less money to cities and local civic leaders are increasingly on their own.

"I tend to be on the side of the equation that lame-duck mayors this far out actually can continue to make a big difference," Katz said. "But they need to be focused and disciplined. It doesn't just happen."

An end date can push executives to pursue goals relentlessly, Katz said. He noted that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg kept a countdown clock on the wall at City Hall -- it ticked off the seconds, hours and days to the end of his third term.

"Make every day count," the clock read.

"One role of the mayor is to convene private, civic and community leaders around big, audacious goals," Katz said. "It's quite possible that being freed up from an election would give her more time to work with philanthropy, business and neighborhoods around a whole bunch of issues."

Henderson was not surprised by the mayor's decision -- and noted that she's not the first politician to make such an announcement shortly after a riot.

The 1967 riots in Detroit spelled the end of the tenure of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, who did not seek re-election. After Baltimore's 1968 riots, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III never sought public office again. And Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley retired a year after the 1992 riots that were triggered by the police beating of Rodney King.

"Riots are politically fatal," said Henderson of the University of Baltimore. "You just don't come back from a riot."

The events of April and the subsequent spike in homicides have appeared to be "emotionally difficult for the mayor," Henderson said. After two decades in public office, faced with a field of at least six candidates and low approval rating, Rawlings-Blake had every right to question why she would continue in such a grueling position, Henderson said.

Doug Duncan, the former Montgomery County executive, called the mayor's decision courageous.

"This lets her focus on the job, it eliminates distractions," said Duncan, who pulled out of the 2006 race for governor because of illness. "It's in the highest spirit of public service. It's the right thing to do for the city. She put aside her personal ambition to do the right thing for her constituents."

Rawlings-Blake can be decisive in her actions without having to worry about the political implications, which should "engender a lot of goodwill" across the city, he said. "People will rally around her."

Parthemos said Rawlings-Blake was not worried about losing the election as much as the impact on Baltimore if she were distracted by a campaign at such a critical period.

"She's run elections and participated in elections, she was involved with her father's elections, she knows what it takes to really run a campaign and run a campaign to win," Parthemos said.

Parthemos said that after Friday's news conference, she offered to cancel Rawlings-Blake's schedule for the rest of the day. The mayor looked at her and said, "We have work to do."

"And I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' She's still the mayor."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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