On the day that Freddie Gray sustained his fatal injuries, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore, appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to weigh in on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 strategy. A rising star in the Democratic party, the 45-year-old was considering a run for the U.S. Senate, according to the Baltimore Sun.
These days, Rawlings-Blake is wrestling with issues much closer to home—issues that threaten to snap her swift rise to national prominence.
The unanswered questions surrounding the death of Gray, who suffered a severed spine while in police custody, have launched her city into its worst civil unrest since the late 60s. And while she has taken a hard line against violent demonstrators, calling them “thugs” at a recent press conference, she is also under fire for appearing to suggest that the city purposely conceded space to people who wanted to destroy property. (Her office issued a clarifying statement, saying that the administration sought to give space to those who wanted to express themselves, which inadvertently created space for those who wanted to vandalize and loot.)
To her credit, Rawlings-Blake has been blunt about her willingness to hold police accountable for the mysterious death of Freddie Gray. "If necessary, we will hold the appropriate parties responsible,” she told Baltimore Magazine. She added: "I know that this is absolutely unacceptable and I want answers."
For Rawlings-Blake, who did not return requests for an interview, the controversy surrounding her handling of the riots puts a ding in an otherwise sterling resume. In 1995, she became the youngest-ever member of the Baltimore City Council, at the age of 25 (the same age Freddie Gray was when he died). In addition to being mayor, she is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; secretary of the Democratic National Committee; and has been honored as a “trailblazer” by the National Congress of Black Women.
She is not the first black woman to serve as Baltimore’s mayor—and her ascension to lead the majority-black city hardly compares to the stigma that such politicians in places like Parma, Missouri, still face—but she has had to overcome a troubling precedent from the woman who came before her.
Her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, resigned from the office after being served an indictment on twelve felony and misdemeanor counts of perjury, theft, and misconduct. She was found guilty on one misdemeanor count of fraudulent misappropriation, and given a plea deal which put her on probation so long as she resigned as mayor.
Dixon did resign, and in February 2010, Rawlings-Blake, who was then the president of the Baltimore City Council, stepped into her place thanks to line of succession laws. In 2011, she was officially elected into the office, securing an astounding total of 87 percent of the vote.
Since then, the centerpiece of her mayorship has been a plan to grow Baltimore's population by over 10,000 families, which she announced in 2011. A core part of that plan is attracting immigrants to the city, and instituting laws that prohibit police and social agencies from asking immigration status when interacting with residents. The goal (and its approach) are exceedingly popular progressive measures, though it has only seen moderate success.
"Baltimore has grown by approximately 1,000 residents since 2010, making progress on a key goal of my administration to grow the city by 10,000 residents," Rawlings-Blake said after the latest Census data was made available a few weeks ago. "We are moving in the right direction by focusing on the quality-of-life issues that matter most to residents and to grow Baltimore."
The second part of that equation—the quality of life issues—are what are at the forefront at the moment, both due to the current unrest, and the city's stubborn crime and homicide rates, which have virtually plateaued in recent years, even as almost all other major cities have seen declines.
She has been affected by violent crime personally. In 2013, her young cousin was killed in a home invasion. And in 2002, her brother was robbed and stabbed at the door to her Baltimore home. "There is no acceptable level of violence," she said in a 2010 interview with the Baltimore Sun in which she remembered her brother's attack. "We have to be vigilant to make sure that people who should not be walking among us are off the street."
Last December, Rawlings-Blake vetoed a bill which would have required Baltimore police to wear body cameras at all times—the same day that President Obama pitched a comprehensive body camera program across the country. "The council sent me a bad bill," she later explained. "I'm against bad legislation. I'm for body cameras."
The irony, of course, is that had Baltimore police been wearing body cameras, some of the mystery surrounding Gray's death might have been minimized.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.