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Change is coming to City Hall

The transition must surely have begun.

City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake must surely be preparing for a new title: Mayor of Baltimore.

The incumbent, Sheila Dixon, has been convicted of embezzlement. She ignores calls for her resignation. She’s a tough lady. She seems unlikely to leave short of a sentence — scheduled for Jan. 21 — that gives her no choice.

She and her lawyers have suggested they will appeal if mistrial motions are denied — which seems likely. Similar appeals were pushed aside throughout her trial.

Should that fail, her only hope may be to prevail in the appeal process, get a new trial and prevail there. Even then, she faces another trial, this one in March on charges of perjury.

Negotiations under way?

Who knows what negotiation may be under way out of public view. A common supposition holds that she will bargain to keep her pension, some $84,000 per year. Under the state constitution, she could lose the money along with the office. If she has any bargaining power, it lies in the pressure to end the city’s pain as soon as possible.

Some in the city feel for her. By virtually all accounts, she has served well as mayor. Few expected she would.

Skepticism lay in her willingness to send business to a relative. Her attitudes were reminiscent of Chicago’s late mayor Richard Daley, who, when caught doling out business to a son, asked, “If you can’t help your family, who can you help?”

Before the trial, it was thought she might survive an ill-considered personal relationship with a developer. Those aspects of the case were dropped — but not until the jury was treated to details of her relationship with someone who might have been after her vote in the City Council.

In the end, she was presented by the prosecutor as someone who had blithely robbed the poor, had denied children their Christmas and who asked for and then spent another developer’s largess. If image is everything in this hyper media world, our mayor has a difficult one to shake.

It’s powerful enough, perhaps, to make her pension even more difficult to secure. Will there be much sympathy for giving a substantial stipend to one who helped herself to alms for the poor? When then-Gov. Marvin Mandel was tried for political corruption in the 1970s, many assumed he would step aside until the charges were disposed of. A painful period of indecision seemed likely to end with his succumbing to pressure to step aside, as newspapers and others demanded. Instead, the demands probably delayed the governor’s action.

The moment did come, finally. Maryland was then governed for 17 months by acting Gov. Blair Lee III, who managed the affairs of state well, restoring a measure of pride. He had the dignified presence Maryland sorely needed then.

Lee may have had more time to get ready than Rawlings-Blake. And, he was an authority on government finance, a useful credential.

Light-speed opportunity

As a member of the city’s Board of Estimates, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has had considerable exposure to city business. That experience is good, but there’s nothing like having to make the decisions on your own.

There will be skepticism about her, if a change of command comes.  Some have mistaken her usually expressionless, even forbidding countenance, as an absence of energy and smarts. Those who have watched her as a candidate or have asked her for comment on various public issues testify to a great sense of humor.

In that and in other ways, no doubt, she is a reflection of her parents. Her father, the late Howard P. Rawlings, was one of Maryland’s most skilled and thoughtful government leaders, a man who was good with numbers and knew how to make them understandable. He was strong and skillful — and occasionally given to something like giddy laughter. Her mother, Dr. Nina Rawlings, was just as influential in her way.

If she is to be more than a mayor-in-waiting, Ms. Rawlings-Blake may be as much a champion of parenting as Mayor Dixon has been. The Rawlings family made sure the children knew what was expected of them — doing well in school, for example, going to college, signing up for various enrichment programs.

It was not until she took a philosophy course at Oberlin, she says, that she knew there was such a thing as free will.

She may not have known about light-speed opportunity in politics either. Now she does.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears weekly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.