It's a new day in Baltimore. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is out and Catherine Pugh is in. It's a welcome change for many in Baltimore who had become disillusioned with Rawlings-Blake and her inability to connect with the city in a meaningful way. Leading a city isn't easy—and leading a city like Baltimore, one entrenched in years and years of structural problems, is a gargantuan task. No one denies that. So what happened? Why is it that Rawlings-Blake's tenure—surely not all bad, surely helpful to many people in many ways—ended with a whimper instead of a bang?
Rawlings-Blake spent six years as mayor. Her tenure began somewhat abruptly in February 2010 when then-mayor Sheila Dixon was forced to resign in the midst of scandal. The following year, Rawlings-Blake ran for re-election and won.
When she gave her first (and only) inaugural address as mayor, she gave a soaring speech that called on Baltimoreans to work together, think differently, and make tough, forward-thinking choices.
"With great suspicion of the status quo, we will work to methodically tear down barriers and overcome the obstacles to getting Baltimore growing again," she said, standing in front of the War Memorial Building. "Our healthy skepticism of government will not obscure or diminish real progress reducing crime and improving our schools. We will demand accountability from everyone, individuals and organizations alike, both public and private. By demanding accountability, we will restore hope and defeat our own cynicism."
They were nice words, but with crime and police abuses of power still a very present problem, and schools still failing to meet the educational needs of many of this city's students—it's worth asking how much of what Rawlings-Blake strove for was actually accomplished?
A scene: Freddie Gray had just been laid to rest. It's Monday, April 27, after nearly a week of protests. Those protests were mostly peaceful although tensions got high Saturday night when demonstrators ventured close to Camden Yards downtown. Turned out baseball fans don't like their fun interrupted with the reality of black death.
Anyway—it was Monday and Baltimore City Police had been making noise about some kind of dangerous event being planned. Although Gray's funeral had been calm, everything was tense that day. Police responded by sending a bunch of heavily armed officers to Mondawmin Mall, just around the time that kids were getting out of school. Someone—we still don't know who—ordered city buses shut down. Chaos ensued.
That night, Rawlings-Blake, who should have known better, got on television and used a word heavy with racial implications. It was a word that ignored the complex ways that poverty, injustice, and long-simmering resentments had led to this boiling over of emotions.
"What we see tonight that is going on in our city is very disturbing," she told television cameras. "It is very clear the difference between what we saw, over the past week with the peaceful protests, those who wish to seek justice, those who wish to be heard and want answers, and the difference between those protests and the thugs."
Another scene: Just a few days before the presidential election, the former mayor appeared on Soledad O'Brien's show "Matter of Fact."
Dressed in red, the former mayor looked great. A chyron at the bottom of the screen told us she was in Boston, for whatever reason. She dutifully did her job as a DNC mouthpiece. She told O'Brien that she was not at all worried about the fact that African-American voters didn't seem enthused about showing up for early voting in Florida. She brushed aside fears that the Democrats had been stymied by emails or in-fighting.
"As days get closer, people see how serious this really is," she said. "I think for so many people, reasonable people, they thought that the possibility of a Trump presidency was out of reach and when they see it so close, the polls tightening, I think people really understand how important it is that people get to the polls."
Now, as minorities are attacked in Trump's name, and advocacy groups scramble to protect public school children, seniors, the disabled—everybody, basically—from Trump's incoming administration, her breezy reassurances seem, well, infuriating, inept, clueless, even dangerous. The Democrats clearly weren't as prepared as they needed to be. The base that they depended on wasn't enough, the celebrity #Imwithher endorsements couldn't save us.
Finally, on the same show, SRB was asked about the fact that she banned a local WYPR reporter, Kenneth Burns, from a press conference she held after the weekly Board of Estimates meeting, claiming he exhibited threatening behavior. The Baltimore press repeatedly asked for explanations, elaboration, examples of the allegedly egregious behavior. She never offered any evidence. O'Brien called it "a pretty unusual move."
Her tone changed. She got a little sassier.
"I don't have a problem with any of the questions that the reporter asked me and any reporter in Baltimore knows that I've taken the questions that I want and the questions that I haven't for years. What I won't tolerate is abusive behavior to my staff. When a reporter told me that a staff person of mine was abusive toward them I handled it immediately, no questions asked. And when a staff person of mine said that that same situation happened with this reporter I handled it immediately, no questions asked."
Well, this was a case where questions needed to be asked. The former mayor's charges against the reporter were serious ones, the kind that could have an effect on him getting hired in the future. Without facts, Rawlings-Blake's accusations just seemed petty and baseless. SRB ignored a public information request tied to the incident and her spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, cut Fox 45 reporter Paul Gessler off when he attempted to ask the mayor for some, any detail about the incident.
A final scene: On a chilly, windy day this past November, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stood, bundled up in a knit hat and puffy coat, beside a stretch of run down Park Heights row homes. Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano had just introduced her. Next to them stood a piece of bright yellow construction equipment, and next to that, architectural renderings of plans for new homes and buildings to be built in the struggling community (full disclosure: my husband is a consulting architect on this project.)
All of it—the run down homes, Graziano's presence, the plans, the weird artificial construct of this event (an online flier called it a "Park Heights Demolition Event" but nothing actually got demolished) felt empty and manufactured.
Graziano told the small crowd—made up of neighbors, reporters, city workers—that the beleaguered community has been a priority for Rawlings-Blake since way back when she was a city council representative. Plans were in place to replace the run-down housing with new structures. A brand new senior center was planned. The future was bright, she again predicted.
"I hope everybody is doing their best to stay warm," Rawlings-Blake said, referring to the chilly weather. "The meteorologist said it was going to be…what? 60 degrees today? It's like, maybe that should be my new gig."
She continued, deadpan: "You don't have to be right and you still get to keep your job."