BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's announcement Friday that she won't seek re-election in 2016 comes as the city struggles to stabilize in the wake of riots, a harrowing spike in violence, and the firing of a police commissioner who oversaw a department now under federal investigation.
Rawlings-Blake, who has been Baltimore's mayor for five years, said her decision was heavily influenced by the distinct hardships Baltimore faces after Freddie Gray, a black man, died in police custody. Gray's death inspired protests and unrest that left buildings smoldering and millions of dollars in damage.
The mayor, who is black, faced harsh criticism for her handling of that crisis, with critics saying she was nowhere to be seen for five hours as structures were set aflame and windows smashed. The governor said she was unreachable for hours as he sought guidance on whether to send in the National Guard. Others blasted her for imposing a citywide curfew that lasted for days.
The riots also threw into focus deep-seated and systemic racial inequality and economic disparity that have plagued Baltimore for decades.
"Many important decisions lie ahead, both from recovering from April's unrest and managing our city through the multiple trials we have coming up," said Rawlings-Blake, referring to the prosecution of the six officers charged in Gray's death.
"The last thing I want is for every one of the decisions I make moving forward at a time when the city needs me the most to be questioned in the context of a political campaign."
Rawlings-Blake has been a steady figure in Baltimore politics, serving on the City Council for 15 years before replacing former mayor Sheila Dixon, who was forced to resign in 2010 after pleading guilty to fraud. Dixon has announced that she will run next year.
During a news conference Friday, Rawlings-Blake acknowledged her approval ratings had "dipped" since April. Some have questioned her ability to lead, and the record-breaking rash of violence prompted her to fire the police commissioner and install his deputy, Kevin Davis.
She instead pointed to other achievements: instituting ethics reforms to combat fraud, reducing the city's $100 million budget deficit by half, adding 12,000 jobs and demolishing more than 3,000 vacant structures.
Some political analysts say she may have been able to pull off a win next year, especially because her numerous challengers would have likely split the vote among those who dislike her.
"She was still a favorite even though her performance, or the perception of her performance, had tarnished her," said Donald Norris, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "In a four-way race, a person only needs 26 percent of the vote to win. This was her race to lose."
However, abandoning her re-election bid precludes a potentially embarrassing loss to her predecessor, Dixon.
And the city's problems have existed since long before Rawlings-Blake was in office and will take much longer than 15 months to fix, said Walter Ludwig, a Democratic political consultant who has worked on campaigns in Baltimore. Curing those ills will require a political regime willing to "sacrifice political capital to fix the things that need to be fixed," he said.
"There are a whole lot of externalities in Baltimore that have to do with race, that have to do with economics, that haven't gone away," Ludwig said, noting that investments in places like the tourist-popular Inner Harbor never made it to the surrounding neighborhoods. "Baltimore was always going to explode. It's still going to explode."
The Rev. Ron Owens, a community leader in West Baltimore who planned Gray's funeral, said the unrest, its aftermath and the political shake-up it has inspired is indicative of a sea change in Baltimore. Citizens, he said, are becoming more empowered, and elected officials are beginning to realize that they must face head-on the underlying issues that have divided Baltimore for generations.
"Freddie Gray has exposed a tale of two cities," Owens said. "The City Fathers, who drive through an abandoned city to their glass towers, who were not impacted but enjoyed the tax dollars and developments of downtown; and Freddie Gray's community, full of holes and deceit and poverty. People are now saying they're not going to let downtown dictate uptown anymore."
Owens said that although he would not have voted for Rawlings-Blake, she "showed dignity, class and commitment to the city's future by stepping out."
"She did the most selfless act done by any politician," he added. "She would have won, but she wouldn't have been able to govern in the meantime."
Associated Press writer Ben Nuckols contributed to this report from Washington.