BALTIMORE— Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, facing ongoing criticism for the city's handling of Freddie Gray's death and the riots that ensued, said Friday she was abandoning her re-election bid to instead focus on governing and spend more time with her family.
Rawlings-Blake made the announcement Friday at a news conference called only 90 minutes earlier, a move that comes just days after officials said the city would pay Gray's family $6.4 million to settle civil claims over his spinal injury and death in police custody.
The mayor said she believes she could have won re-election, pointing to her work on the city's budget and pension system. However, she said, the city needed to get through the trials of the six police officers charged in Gray's death.
"It was a very difficult decision, but I knew I needed to spend time focused on the city's future, not my own," she said, noting she thought about her future throughout the summer as the criminal case against the officers moved forward.
"It's something that has been a nagging concern for me, and something I've prayed about a lot," she said.
When asked if she had effectively made herself a lame duck, Rawlings-Blake said that was not the case. She said she did not want every decision she made over the next 15 months to be evaluated in the context of a political campaign.
"I'm focused right now on governing, rather than campaigning for mayor at this critical time in our history," she said.
The 45-year-old Democrat assumed office in 2010 after her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, was convicted of embezzling gift cards for needy families and pleaded in a separate case for lying about gifts from her developer ex-boyfriend. Rawlings-Blake won the 2011 Democratic primary with about 52 percent of the vote in the heavily Democratic city.
Some questioned her readiness to lead the city at first, but she won praise for her handling of snowstorms and budget gaps.
That praise turned to criticism as many blasted her handling of the unrest following Gray's death. For nearly five hours on the day of Gray's funeral, as windows were smashed and buildings set aflame across swaths of east and west Baltimore, she was nowhere to be seen. The next day, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Rawlings-Blake did not return his calls for hours as he sought guidance on whether to call in the National Guard.
She was also criticized for the enforcement and length of a citywide curfew she authorized, which was more strictly carried out in poor neighborhoods than in wealthier parts of the majority-black city.
As homicides spiked in July, she fired Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and appointed one of his deputies in the interim.
Rawlings-Blake said she hoped her cabinet members would stay on the job for the next 15 months, but acknowledged that there is often turnover at the end of an administration.
Several people, including Dixon, have announced plans to seek the Democratic nomination in the April 26 primary. The general election is often seen as a formality in the heavily Democratic city, which hasn't had a Republican mayor since 1967. The city recently shifted its election cycle to bring it in sync with the state and federal election cycle to attract more voters.
Dixon declined to comment on how the mayor's decision would change the race, saying only that Rawlings-Blake and her family have made sacrifices, and "I think she's earned the right to pursue other goals and other challenges in her life."
Rawlings-Blake comes from a family that's long been part of Baltimore's black elite. Her father, Howard "Pete" Rawlings, who died in 2003, was a well-regarded, longtime state legislator who chaired the powerful appropriations committee in the House of Delegates, the first African-American to do so. Rawlings-Blake and her husband have a daughter, and the mayor said she wanted to spend more time with her as she enters her teenage years.
Rawlings-Blake became the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June. She is the first African-American woman to hold the post.