BALTIMORE — As Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake emerges from the back seat of her city-issued black Chevy Suburban at 7 a.m. sharp in front of City Hall, it’s clear the stress of the past several days is taking a toll.
She fiddles with her typed notes as an aide hands her a cup of Starbucks coffee. She takes one sip and hands it back. She’s trying to hold it together.
Rawlings-Blake, 45, does a 10-minute television interview, then walks over to a barricade where a half-dozen National Guard troops are standing, protecting City Hall since rioting erupted after the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old man from the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood on Baltimore’s west side died from injuries he sustained while in police custody. Six Baltimore police officers were charged last week in connection with his death.
“How old are you guys?” she asks a guardsman in a deadpan tone.
“Twenty-four? I was 24 once. Y’all making me feel very old.”
The young men giggle like schoolboys and snap a photo with her before she’s whisked away to another event.
Gray’s death and the subsequent civil unrest have been a test for the traditionally low-key, big-city mayor, who prefers working quietly behind the scenes but was forced onto the national stage. It was the first national crisis for Rawlings-Blake since her election as mayor in 2011.
“This would be, for any mayor, a phenomenal challenge,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a native Baltimorean. “But I think she’s handled it extremely well. She’s been methodical.”
Rawlings-Blake lifted the city’s 10 p.m. curfew earlier this week, saying that order had been restored and that she was confident that the city could begin healing.
“The urgent public safety threat has been significantly reduced, but there’s a lot of repair work that needs to be done,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We’re still in a place where we’ve never been. We don’t have a framework for how do you heal.”
One of the mayor’s greatest challenges will be fixing the fractured relationship between the community and police.
“It’s not the best relationship right now, but we have to . . . work this out,” Rawlings-Blake said. “We’re always going to be vulnerable to flare-ups until we repair the relationship.”
After her impromptu meeting last week with the National Guard troops, Rawlings-Blake arrives at Matthew Henson Elementary School in a West Baltimore neighborhood dotted with burned-out rowhouses and boarded-up storefronts. She’s there to help distribute thousands of pounds of cereal, juice, potatoes and other items bagged moments before by Baltimore Ravens players and coaches.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is how resilient we are and how we come together,” she announces.
Jesse Oden, a retired colonel with the Baltimore Police Department, greets Rawlings-Blake with a hug.
“Keep on doing what you’re doing,” he says. “I love you.”
“I know you do.”
She is weary. Running on empty, she calls it.
Rawlings-Blake said she has clocked about four hours of sleep a night since the unrest began and hasn’t eaten much.
“I was in a Justice Department meeting the other day, and I was in the middle of saying something and I got lightheaded,” she recalls. “I realize I need to do better.”
Typically known for being calm even under the most dire circumstances, Rawlings-Blake is not accustomed to the public backlash that came on the heels of Gray’s death.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) criticized her for delaying calling in the National Guard. She made several public faux pas, including labeling looters “thugs.”
“Was it a poor choice of words said in anger? Absolutely,” she says. “It was even more so because it took the focus off the pain that people were going through.
“It’s not easy being under intense scrutiny when people are second-guessing you. People swarm on you.”
She’s also had private run-ins with newly elected State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby concerning the police investigation into Gray’s death. And residents of some of Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods say she is detached.
“I’m not happy with the way she’s handled things,” said Lavon Wathers, a 44-year-old school crossing guard. “She wasn’t prepared.
“The market’s gone, the CVS is gone,” Wathers said. “All because she waited too long and things got out of hand.”
Rawlings-Blake said she understands the community’s outrage but said she had to be deliberate in her approach.
“People are angry and frustrated and sad, and I understand they need someone to blame,” she said. “But if you’ve never dealt with this type of emergency, you don’t understand all of the pieces that are going on.”
Ama Brown, 31, said there’s a disconnect between the mayor and many of Baltimore’s disenfranchised, particularly the young people.
“The youth need a voice, but they have been left out of her scope,” said Brown, a sales coordinator at a Baltimore hotel. “She won’t have much of a future, because she’s not thinking about the future of Baltimore.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, who met Rawlings-Blake when she was a City Council member, said she is being unfairly attacked.
“What we see in Baltimore could happen to any one of us,” Nutter said. “It’s so clear that this is painful for her.”
Stephanie Cole Rawlings-Blake has had a charmed life. The second of three children, she grew up in the Ashburton neighborhood on Baltimore’s west side, a middle-class community of stately homes, landscaped yards and wide, tree-lined streets.
Born on her father’s birthday, March 17, Rawlings-Blake was near perfect in his eyes.
“Whatever she did was golden,” says her brother, Wendell, 43.
He describes his sister as “extremely funny” with a “dry and cutting” sense of humor who teased him constantly. “She used to have me crying 24/7,” he added.
Rawlings-Blake, a wife and mother, has a penchant for clothes — she shops a lot on eBay — as well as shoes and makeup. And her hair is always coiffed.
She and her siblings — her brother, a graduate of North Carolina A&T, and older sister Lisa, who attended Princeton University with first lady Michelle Obama — had a family mantra: Say little and listen lots. Don’t show emotion. Traits inherited from their father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, a powerful lawmaker who was the first African American to chair the Maryland House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee. He died in 2003 of complications from cancer. Their mother, Nina, is a retired pediatrician who still lives in the family home.
Many say the lack of emotion shown by Rawlings-Blake — she rarely smiles or laughs in public these days — proves that she cannot connect with many residents. But she says she understands the plight of Baltimoreans more than most.
In 2002, her brother was stabbed in the neck and back as he got out of his car in front her condominium. He made it to her door.
“Blood was gushing everywhere,” Rawlings-Blake recalled. “I was so frantic.”
Wendell Rawlings said his sister put pressure on the wounds until paramedics arrived. “If she wasn’t there, I would have died,” he said.
Two years ago, their young cousin was murdered in a home invasion in Baltimore County.
“She feels the pain of the people,” says longtime friend Karenthia A. Barber.
Howard Rawlings groomed his youngest daughter for public service.
“She was always there with Dad at community meetings in Annapolis,” Wendell Rawlings said. “She handed out pamphlets and said, ‘Vote for my daddy!’ ”
By the time she was in the third grade, Rawlings-Blake knew that she wanted to be a public servant. Her passions were government and campaigning.
“I’ve only lost one election, and that was to Anthony Watson for student government in the seventh grade,” she says.
Rawlings-Blake attended Western High School, a public all-girls’ school that was considered one of the best in Baltimore. She worked as a puppeteer at the Inner Harbor before enrolling in Oberlin College in Ohio. She spent her summer breaks partying with friends on Martha’s Vineyard.
After getting a degree in politics, she returned home to attend law school at the University of Maryland.
In 1995, at age 25, Rawlings-Blake was the youngest person elected to the Baltimore City Council. She became its president in 2007 and mayor in 2010, when then-Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned after being convicted of a misdemeanor charge involving the theft of gift cards. Rawlings-Blake ran successfully for mayor the next year. She’s up for reelection in 2016, and she says she’ll run.
She says that her accomplishments, including reforming the police department to reduce police brutality and excessive force, will be what voters remember on Election Day.
“The record is clear,” she told a group of 300 people at a luncheon at New Shiloh Baptist Church last week. “I know we had problems, and I was determined to fix them.”
Rawlings-Blake said that police officers will have body cameras by the end of the year.
City Council member Helen Holton, a frequent critic of Rawlings-Blake’s, said the mayor needs to address other issues plaguing the city, including “blight that has been in place since 1968.”
“Have you heard of ‘benign neglect’?” Holton asked. “If you don’t take it on, it doesn’t get done. She hasn’t taken it on.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who appeared with Rawlings-Blake and other activists at New Shiloh last week, said it’s unfair to make her a “scapegoat” for the city’s ills.
“To act as though this mayor could undo 50 years of neglect . . . don’t blame [her] for what the last mayors and governors didn’t do,” Sharpton said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.