If any big city official seemed prepared for a riot, it was Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
After last year’s violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Rawlings-Blake sat on a panel that drafted ideas on how to improve relationships between police and the communities they protect. And she gained a reputation as a television-friendly mayor ready to confront urban issues.
But by Monday evening, with smoke rising over parts of her city and looters taking items from store shelves, Rawlings-Blake struggled to find her footing and regain control of a rapidly deteriorating situation.
In a press conference following riots that injured 15 police officers, Rawlings-Blake accused her critics of engaging in a “blatant mischaracterization” of her words.
She was responding to pushback over comments she made over the weekend in which she spoke of the “balancing act” facing public officials in Baltimore.
“While we tried to make sure that (protestors) were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well,” she said Saturday night.
As she sought to smooth tensions on Monday, she insisted that she never suggested the city was accepting of violence.
“I did not say that we were passive of it,” Rawlings-Blake said in a Monday night press conference. “I’ve never said anything to that fact.”
And in an interview later that night with CNN’s Don Lemon, the mayor again said she had been very clear from the start.
“What I said very clearly was when you give people an – when you, when you facilitate space for people to be heard, that space was exploited by those who meant to do harm to our city,” Rawlings-Blake said. “That’s what I was saying very clearly.”
Alongside Rawlings-Blake, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan had nothing but praise for the Democratic mayor, telling CNN “she’s done a terrific job.”
“They’ve had this under control. It escalated to the point this evening, or late this afternoon, where it was out of control and when the mayor called and asked us to declare a state of emergency, we were ready and prepared and we did so immediately,” Hogan said of the decision to declare a state of emergency and activate the state’s national guard.
Still, Rawlings-Blake moved into a far more assertive role as riots escalated on Monday. She imposed a curfew on the city, asked the governor to send in the National Guard and conferred with President Barack Obama.
Rawlings-Blake, 45, took office in 2010 after the former mayor, Sheila Dixon, resigned following an embezzlement conviction. She won a full term of her own in 2011 and has presided over a city that seemed to be enjoying an economic resurgence.
The Baltimore mayor looks like she’ll take a pass on running for a soon-to-be-available Senate seat in Maryland, but some speculate that she may run for governor in 2018, when newly elected Hogan will face re-election.
But before she can consider that post, she must overcome one of the biggest challenges of her career following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.
Rawlings-Blake is used to being on television, and over the past week, she’s hardly ever been off of it.
Baltimore’s mayor, tested by the mysterious death of Gray that is raising questions about potential brutality by Baltimore cops, was earning plaudits from some political observers for her omnipresence as the city works its way through a public relations landmine.
But as the situation becomes more violent in Baltimore, she’s also faced more questions about her leadership.
“Any challenge is also, from a political perspective, an opportunity,” said Oscar Ramirez, a Democratic lobbyist from Maryland who has watched Rawlings-Blake’s career.
Rawlings-Blake has taken guidance from how other cities have handled these similar crises. After riots erupted in Ferguson, following the death of another young black man, she served on a national committee organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, that drafted ideas how to improve community-police relations.
“It is important to take into account optics – how things look,” was one of the report’s conclusions.
On that score, at least, Rawlings-Blake was succeeding, said Doug Thornell, a Democratic political strategist with experience in Maryland.
“Not every single executive would’ve done it. There are very recent examples of executives who would’ve essentially climbed into a bunker and not answer every question,” Thornell said, comparing the reaction in Baltimore to local leadership’s response in Ferguson.
In one example of Rawlings-Blake’s willingness to confront hard issues in the wake of the Gray controversy, she didn’t back down in an interview last week with CNN’s Jake Tapper when he asked about a measure she nixed requiring body cameras for Baltimore cops.
“The council sent me a bad bill. I’m against bad legislation, I’m for body cameras and my track record speaks to that,” she said. “I want to make sure we do it and we do it right. If the council sends me a bad bill, I can’t sign it. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have body cameras and it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m against them.”
Yet some in Baltimore’s African-American community have criticized Rawlings-Blake, who is black, for only rising to the occasion once Gray died and video surfaced of how police treated him – and not while he remained in a coma.
“We didn’t hear the outrage from her when the man was in a coma,” Jamal Bryant, a Baltimore preacher, told The Washington Post. “It felt like a politician was talking – that this is politically correct and I think that’s the sentiment in the street.”
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.