Josh Kurtz: A Daughter of Baltimore – And Her Burden

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Pete Rawlings was the smartest person I ever knew in Maryland politics.

The late House Appropriations chairman had the rare combination of street smarts, book smarts and political smarts. He used all three with steely effectiveness.

Rawlings could sense political moods and trends better than anyone. He seized opportunities, exploited people’s weaknesses and was completely fearless. He didn’t care what people thought about him or about the consequences of his words and deeds. He could be a tough SOB, but his heart was bursting with compassion. He had a dry, wicked sense of humor, and a sly grin.

It must have been hard for his daughter, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to measure up. She was bred for a life in politics, and entered her father’s line of work at the ridiculously young age of 25, when she was elected to the Baltimore City Council.

So in essence, Rawlings-Blake was forced to grow up in public view – getting married, becoming a mother, mourning her father’s untimely death, running for City Council president against another political scion, and taking over as mayor with barely a moment’s notice, before she ever possibly could have been ready.

There are two enduring impressions of the departing mayor: One is that she wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and other is that she may have been better suited for a life as a legislator rather than as an executive of a roiling, nearly ungovernable metropolis.

Not that Rawlings-Blake didn’t have skills or intellect or a vision for making Baltimore a better place. It’s just that she lacked some of the essential elements of a successful political executive – that desire to plunge into a crowd, to always be the center of attention, to show emotion, to thunder at evil, and to be a salesperson and cheerleader and table-pounder and cajoler 24 hours a day.  

We can’t blame Rawlings-Blake directly for the city’s spiking murder rate or the chaos that ensued following the death of Freddie Gray. These and other calamities could have happened under any mayor.

But Rawlings-Blake’s reaction to crises all too often has been cool, diffident and analytical, when bold, angry or spontaneous would have been more politically effective. Rawlings-Blake obviously cares about her city, but lately she seems to be going about her daily business with a certain joylessness. And that has been sad to watch.

Announcing last week that she would not seek re-election was unquestionably the right move for Rawlings-Blake. She can, as she said, focus on governing for the next 15 months without the distractions of campaigning.

She may have won re-election despite the odds, as she boasted at last week’s City Hall press conference announcing her decision. But now the campaign to succeed her will be more about the future of Baltimore and less about the past (and that could, in turn, make Sheila Dixon’s bid to regain her old job more complicated). If Rawlings-Blake wants a political career down the line – and she is only 45 – she will not have a possible loss in 2016 staining her record.

And she will soon be able to go about the business of building the next phase of her life, after two decades as a public servant. Even if Rawlings-Blake never again seeks public office, she should have a bright future in the public eye without the burdens of being mayor – in business, in the nonprofit world, in academia, or perhaps as a cabinet member for the next Democratic president. She’ll do well.

On a sweltering afternoon two years ago, I sat down with the mayor moments after the groundbreaking for the Horseshoe Casino south of downtown Baltimore. Everyone around us was sweating, but she seemed like the essence of cool.

As the interview was ending, I asked Rawlings-Blake what she envisioned for her future, if she imagined life after City Hall. It was an obvious political question, and I was expecting some kind of pat political answer.

Her reply surprised me: She said she’d be happy if her daughter talked to her, and if her husband looked at her.

Soon, she’ll find out. She has certainly earned that right.

And now, Baltimore leaders and voters embark upon the scary, messy and exciting task of charting the city’s future.  

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.