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C. Fraser Smith: City in the hands of a caretaker

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake now faces the possibility she will be a caretaker mayor for the next 15 months.

Or it could be worse. In effect, Baltimore might have a mayor in name only. She may have less power than a lame duck — and for well over a year.

A shame the city charter does not provide for an immediate election in such situations. Lame duckness usually doesn’t last nearly so long.

The mayor says poll results and the possibility she might lose a re-election bid had nothing to do with her departure. And the prospect of such a long period without the usual power dynamic at her disposal could not have seemed attractive. She may well have been a lame duck whatever decision she made.

Her prospects were, perhaps, fatally undermined in the three hours she waited to summon help when the city faced its most serious unrest in more than 30 years.

Political leaders can solidify their standing in times of duress. But they must perform. They must exude confidence and command. She failed in that crucial, public moment.

As long as it seems before her term ends, she probably had too little time to make a comeback. When you lose authority under such circumstances — with so much on the line — you may never recover. These are truly defining moments.

And, yet, the damage done in those three hours was not the whole story. She managed the fiscal health of the city well. She recognized and worked to get some relief to the highly taxed city taxpayer.

In the days before she stepped down, she actually seemed to be addressing an issue that meant as much as her performance when the city burned on national TV. She showed up on Page One of The Baltimore Sun with an engaging smile for schoolchildren — just the sort of exposure she seldom had.

Mayors have to be accessible. They have to have a personality. She resisted that part of the job. Thus did her stumbles have far more devastating impact — though there were people who supported her decision.

A veteran of city politics, a fan of the mayor in fact, said the voters finally saw cracks in the facade of leadership — in moments of crisis voters may see faults insiders have known for some time.

Rawlings-Blake and her supporters say her decision not to run for re-election means she is freed of handcuffing political considerations.

But that circumstance may not be such an advantage. It might even be a disadvantage. Politics is the game. You have to play.

Where will she find the leverage any leader, lame duck or not, needs to make any of her decisions stick? Is there anyone this mayor can turn to for help with the police union, for example?

The union may feel empowered by recent events. It takes credit for getting former Commissioner Anthony Batts fired. Undoubtedly it takes some credit for her decision not to run for re-election.

She may have helped herself by proposing to move Kevin Davis from acting to permanent police commissioner — likely a popular decision among the rank and file. She will need more such actions over the next several months to keep the city functioning well — critically important in these post-Freddie Gray times.

When the various federal authorities complete their investigation of the department she will need help putting in place the reforms that surely are coming. Davis will help, no doubt, but his authority could be undermined by the hits the mayor has taken.

How will she deal with Gov. Larry Hogan, who has seemed less than respectful after the rioting? Here, she may benefit from his political decision to show some new sensitivity to the city’s needs.

His future will depend to some extent on his stewardship of Baltimore as it limps forward with a weakened leader.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.