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Baltimore Mayor Under Intense Scrutiny Following Street Violence


Baltimore's mayor faces a lot of criticism just now. It's fallen to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to contain the violence that struck parts of her city. Some residents contend she hasn't done enough to help poor neighborhoods. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Ralph Johnson Jr. is a retired corrections officer who voted for Rawlings-Blake. He doesn't want to be too critical, but he did notice that when former Mayor Sheila Dixon arrived at the funeral service for Freddie Gray, she was greeted with a boisterous standing ovation. Rawlings-Blake got some polite applause. He thinks that says a lot about the current mayor.

RALPH JOHNSON JR.: I'm not going to say that she has done anything wrong. I'm just saying that in order to lead and to help resolve situations in the community, you have to become a part of the community.

FESSLER: And it's something you hear again and again in Baltimore, that Rawlings-Blake, who grew up in one of the city's more affluent black neighborhoods, often seems detached from the poorest residents and has failed to address their needs and that she's now paying the price with the city at times seemingly out of control. Lester Spence teaches race and politics at Johns Hopkins University.

LESTER SPENCE: The mayor has a tendency, like a number of black political officials with her background, to kind of treat black, poor and working-class populations, who represent a sizable number of her constituents, with disdain.

FESSLER: And by disdain, he notes her use of the word thugs to describe the mostly young people who rampaged through the city on Monday night. It was a word that Rawlings-Blake backed away from the following morning at a meeting with church leaders.


MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Sometimes my little anger interpreter gets the best of me.


RAWLINGS-BLAKE: And, you know, we have a lot of kids that are acting out.

FESSLER: It wasn't the only criticism that the democrat had to address. Maryland's Republican governor, Larry Hogan, implied on Monday night that the mayor waited too long to seek his help. When she was asked about it later, Rawlings-Blake told reporters it was a delicate balance - getting things under control without escalating tensions in a very tense city.


RAWLINGS-BLAKE: You know, there's always going to be armchair quarterbacks that have never sat in my seat that see things differently. But this isn't the first emergency that I've had to deal with.

FESSLER: But it certainly is the biggest in a long political career. Rawlings-Blake was a lawyer and a public defender but also the youngest person ever elected to the city council at age 25 in 1995. She later became council president. And when Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned after an embezzlement conviction, Rawlings-Blake took her place. She was elected to her first full term in 2011 and has flirted with higher office. John Bullock is a political scientist at Towson University and a Baltimore resident. He says it's really too soon to tell whether the current crisis will tarnish a rising star.

JOHN BULLOCK: The truth is she's more of a deliberative type of leader, and she doesn't necessarily wear her feelings on her sleeve.

FESSLER: And he says that can rub some people the wrong way. But Bullock knows that ever since Monday night, the mayor's been out on the streets - at times wearing a baseball cap and a sweatshirt - promising to make things better. He thinks she's probably doing as well as can be expected at a very difficult time. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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