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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake exits a news conference after announcing she will not seek re-election next year, Friday, in Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake said she believes she could have won re-election, pointing to her work on the city’s budget and pension system. However, she said, not seeking re-election was the best decision for the city and for her family. (Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

With Rawlings-Blake bowing out, business looks for its candidate

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s unexpected announcement that she’s not seeking re-election caught business leaders off guard, but some are now wondering if that decision presents an opportunity to get behind a candidate sympathetic to their needs.

At times, the relationship between businesses and the current administration have been strained. The election, without the incumbent running, gives businesses a shot to hit the reset button and start fresh. Establishing a new relationship between business leaders and the city will be important as Baltimore prepares to deal with any fallout from the six separate trials for the police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray.

But more than seven months from the Democratic primary — often the de-facto election in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republican nearly 10 to one — there isn’t a candidate in the race that’s a natural fit for the business community to rally around.

So far the highest-profile candidates to say they are running are former Mayor Sheila Dixon, state Sen. Catherine Pugh and Councilman Carl Stokes. Each of those candidates have long-standing ties to the city’s political establishment and may not represent the fresh start some in the business community are seeking.

Each of the candidates has championed issues that make them attractive candidates for business leaders,  such as Stokes’ calls for lowering property taxes across the board, and stances that are not so attractive, such as Pugh’s championship of legislation creating mandatory paid sick leave.

Terri Harrington, a senior vice president at JLL and a Baltimore resident, pointed out that in national and state politics candidates that have been seen as political outsiders are performing quite well. She said the mayor’s decision, and the remaining candidates, leaves the door open for a political outsider to emerge.

“I think a new candidate, an unforeseen candidate, maybe a business candidate, could really stir things up,” Harrington said.

David Tufaro, founder of development company Terra Nova Ventures LLC, said he would like to see the business community take a more active role in city politics. The former Republican mayoral candidate said he sees an opening for a pro-business candidate from outside the political establishment. But, he said, the candidate would have to be a Democrat, most likely black and have enough name recognition to have a shot in a primary only seven months away.

“I think the business community really has to think properly about their role [in the city] because I don’t think they’ve been helpful. They have not been taking the lead in reforming this city, they have not taken the lead in being outspoken on issues,” Tufaro said. “They don’t want to upset the mayor.”

Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III, a former city councilman and real estate agent, said the mayor’s decision not to seek re-election will result in several more candidates entering the race. But Landers, who unsuccessfully ran against Rawlings-Blake in the 2010 primary, said the role of the business community in the upcoming election was being discussed at the Baltimore Efficiency & Economy Foundation’s board meeting prior to the mayor’s announcement Friday morning.

“I think the business community can play a tremendous role in the outcome of the election by getting behind a candidate who supports their issues, or looking at making city government more effective, efficient. There’s just so many things that the city needs,” Landers said.

Despite looking ahead to the future, business leaders will still need to collaborate with Rawlings-Blake, who will remain in the city’s top job for the next 15 months. Even though the mayor is now a lame duck, some believe the decision not to run could improve her relationship with the business community during the remainder of her term.

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a former Stokes campaign adviser, said the mayor’s decision to withdraw from the election could have a positive effect on her relationships with groups such as the business community as she looks to govern and rebuild following the riots.

“I suspect they, like potential opponents, were starting to have doubts about her electability,” Crenson said. “This (the announcement) may make them more receptive to her as she reaches out to them for support.”

The relationship with businesses will also be important as some large development projects, such as Sagamore Development’s plans for Port Covington, Corporate Office Properties Trust’s Watefront at Canton Crossing and several other proposed buildings, make their way through the city’s development process.

During her news conference on Friday when she announced her decision not to seek re-election, Rawlings-Blake touted some of the economic accomplishments achieved so far in her time in office. Those achievements include lowering property taxes, adding 12,000 new jobs and attracting new companies to the city such as Amazon, she said.

“I have a track record of making the right decisions for our city’s future. That track record includes not always making what many would think is the political decision, or popular decision, but it’s the right decision,” she said.

Reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this article.

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About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.