In a few words: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is in a league of her own. Believe it or not, in 2013 only a handful of black men and women serve as elected mayors of major cities in America. Of the 100 largest U.S. cities, only one has an African-American woman as mayor— Baltimore, its mayor being the Honorable Rawlings-Blake. TheGrio had an opportunity to spend time with Rawlings-Blake and her family to create this candid and inspiring interview about her unique life.
Baltimore’s ambitious and accomplished forty-something mayor is truly a stand out star who has a bright future in the Democratic Party of Maryland — and more importantly, nationally if she wants one. She is tall, striking, fun to be around, and loves people. Some say she is a committed workaholic on behalf of the people of Baltimore, but above all else she is a deeply devoted wife, and mother to a cute, smart nine-year-old daughter. She is also a loyal sibling, and loving daughter.
Stephanie won her first elected office at the tender age of 25, in 1995 becoming the youngest person ever elected to the Baltimore City Council. She became president of the Council on January 17, 2007, when then-City Council President Sheila Dixon became mayor.
From 1998 to 2006, Rawlings-Blake was an attorney with the Baltimore Office of the Public Defender. She is a member of the Federal Bar Association and the Maryland State Bar Association. Rawlings-Blake is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Epsilon Omega chapter and a former at-large member of the Alliance of Black Women Attorneys.
Stephanie’s political rise was unusual to say the least. As City Council president, she assumed the mayoral office from her predecessor Sheila Dixon under a cloud of scandal through succession. Dixon was the city’s first black female mayor. Her ouster under corruption charges left the loyal residents who worked for her historic election disappointed, dismayed, and wondering if Blake could heal the city’s political wounds. Blake stepped up to the plate on February 4, 2010, becoming the city’s second female and fourth black mayor. She was elected to the position in 2011.
Still, there was a lot of sadness in taking over Dixon’s position. “I had known the former mayor since we were young people — my dad mentored her. I grew up with a tremendous amount of respect for her,” Rawlings-Blake said.
“I felt dishonored. There was no personal accountability — no admission — she did not step-up and admit that she let people down,” Rawlings-Blake added about Dixon’s failings. “In my book, if your community says what you did was wrong, at least acknowledge the hurt you caused. As a black woman, it made me sad, angry, embarrassed and frustrated, because I knew far too often I was going to be painted with the same brush. As a leader, it concerned me, because people lost confidence in government and city hall. I had to rebuild trust — and ethics had to be a big part of our administration. Bottom line: I knew that following the first black woman, who left office in disgrace, I as a black woman would have a harder way to go.”
Fast forward to 2013. Baltimore is a city on the move, with Rawlings-Blake leading the way towards business innovation, education reforms, and more.
A force for change: Rawlings-Blake’s impact on Baltimore
Mayor Blake is all about transforming Baltimore into a truly 21st century model city. Her motto is, “We grow when we grow from strength.” The Rawlings-Blake administration is focused on partnering with hospitals and universities in Baltimore such as Johns Hopkins to figure out what the city can do to attract more industry and revenue. One of her biggest passions is working to create an environment that brings people to Baltimore, a plan that includes reducing crime, building a financial services industry, and nuturing an emerging tech center.
“The good news is that from the mayor’s office, you get a chance to set the tone, and put good practices and policy into place. And that’s the part I get excited about. We are reforming our schools, transforming our recreation centers and doing creative things to reduce crime. Being mayor affords me the opportunity to make these changes.
“But I had to learn first,” she said of discerning how to create solutions. “While I am mayor, I don’t have one vote on the Council.” Yet, “Being the floor leader on the Council taught me how to effectively implement change,” the mayor explained. “It’s a process. And one that I enjoy.”
How Rawlings-Blake responded to her first challenges as mayor set the ground work for more improvements.
“When I became mayor on Feb 4, 2010, the historic winter storm ‘Snowmaggeden’ happened on my watch,” she said. “It was my first test as a leader of how we responded. People were very pleased.”
Even more critical was her handling of the city’s financial issues. “When I came in, we were facing a fiscal crisis and budget shortfall — in fact the worst budget deficit… ever. We did not benefit from the good times that other regions of the country were enjoying, and with historic job losses we lost tax revenue, yet the costs of doing business as a city was increased and our resources were shrinking.”
The mayor continued, “I could not lay off police or fire fighters. I decided to hire instead more law enforcement to aggressively get homicide rates down to their lowest since 1970. Violent crime has dropped to under 200 persons annually,” Rawlings-Blake said of this accomplishment.
The wife and mother has also taken a new approach to Baltimore’s finances. “We have outcome-based budgeting, which forces us to focus on our priorities as a city. It allows us to create efficiency even with less money to spend,” she said. “Prioritizing budge outcomes allows you to be creative — versus keeping with the status quo.” This approach is helping the mayor address 50 years of disinvestment in the city.
Who is Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the woman?
Rawlings-Blake is as committed to her city as she is to her personal life.
“At my core, I am someone who grew up loving Baltimore City. I am a mother, a wife, and devoted to the city I want to leave to my daughter,” she told theGrio. “I think Baltimore is a great city— it’s in my veins.