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She came in third in a field of 15 candidates, which meant she would be seated, the youngest person ever elected to the Baltimore City Council. The election brought new energy to the council, which had been torn by a fierce power struggle between then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and then-Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.
Among the new representatives were two other scions of Baltimore's political elite - Kieffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose family tree includes a congressman, civil rights leaders and city and state officials, and Robert W. Curran, who filled the council seat vacated by his brother, Martin E. "Mike" Curran, and previously held by their father, J. Joseph Curran Sr. With Rawlings-Blake, the three would form an independent voting bloc, calling themselves the "Angelina's Pact" after the crab cake restaurant on Harford Road.
"We were looked to as the next generation," Mitchell said. "There was a lot of hope."
By early 1996, Rawlings-Blake was juggling her political duties with studying for the bar, which she passed early in the year. She became a member of the Maryland state bar on June 5, 1996, and the federal bar in July 1997, though she would never practice in federal court.
In February 1997, she took a part-time position as an attorney within Baltimore's Legal Aid Bureau, a nonprofit that provides free counsel to low-income people.
The clients came from the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. Many had been ravaged by drug addiction. They hadn't completed high school. Most were repeat offenders, racking up charges for petty thefts and drugs. "It helped crystallize in my mind what the most pressing issues were for the neediest in our city," said Rawlings-Blake.
Executive Director William H. Joseph Jr. remembers her as a "very committed member of our staff."
"My sense of Stephanie is that she is an advocate on every level," said Joseph, who hired her. But she's been most valuable to his organization as a politician.
She and Mitchell introduced and secured a unanimous resolution calling for a $250,000 grant from then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. It has come through twice more since then, though slightly reduced in the most recent year.
Rawlings-Blake traded the bureau's civil work for a criminal docket in 1998, joining the Baltimore Public Defender's Office in its Southern District in March and handling the usual array of misdemeanors, from drug possession to public urination.
Assistant Public Defender Robert Raglin shared an office with her for five years and says she was a pleasure to work with.
"She's a serious person, but she is very warm, she's very friendly, especially when you get to know her," he said. Her father called her daily to check in, and the entire family, siblings too, passed through the office to visit. Raglin became friends with her husband that way.
"They're a very family-oriented group," he said.
They each handled 10 to 15 cases per day, five days a week, and she was always there on time, despite wearing two hats: one a lawyer's and one a council member's.
"Obviously, she had to give time to both of them, and I give her a lot of credit for that," Raglin said. She "focuses on what she's doing at the time."
Rawlings-Blake left the Public Defender's Office in December 2006, and has let her law licenses go on inactive status, knowing that she wanted to focus on politics full time.
Pete Rawlings and several of the city's power brokers gathered in 1999 to debate who should be the city's next leader. It was 1999, and Schmoke had signaled his desire to move on after three terms as mayor. The front-runners, Council President Bell and former Councilman Carl Stokes, had each committed a series of gaffes. Attempts to draft then- NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and council member, had failed.
Rawlings-Blake spoke up. What about Martin O'Malley, her colleague on the council and also a mayoral candidate? He wasn't perfect, but was the old guard ignoring him simply because he was a white candidate in a predominantly black city?
"I just remember sitting there being so frustrated," she recalled. "I told my dad, 'The only thing he is not is black. If he was a grandstanding, arrogant, add-your-other-adjective black person, everyone at this table would be on board. You didn't help me get all this education to continue down the old-school way of thinking.' "
Plus, she pointed out, O'Malley got along well with another council member, Sheila Dixon, a favorite of her father's. Wouldn't they make a successful mayor-council president ticket?
After some deliberation, Rawlings agreed. His endorsement helped launch O'Malley to victory. But critics accused Rawlings of striking the deal to boost his daughter's career.
He handled the heat with his trademark equanimity. "When you're a leader, you define vision," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1999 interview on the issue. "When you're a leader, you take risks. When you're a leader, you make yourself vulnerable in a democracy."
O'Malley returned the favor, endorsing Rawlings-Blake as council vice president, the member traditionally responsible for wresting votes on the council for the mayor's agenda.
But her rise would come at a price. It was the end of the Angelina's Pact, said Mitchell, who had been one of her closest allies until that point.
"When O'Malley became mayor," he said, "she was 100 percent with the administration."
Their political bond remains strong today, with O'Malley in the governor's office and Rawlings-Blake following Dixon, first as City Council president and, today, mayor.
In fact, O'Malley supported Rawlings-Blake's bid for council president in 2007, weeks before extending an endorsement to Dixon's re-election campaign. And he offered up a close aide, Sean Malone, to help Rawlings-Blake in the close race against Michael Sarbanes. Malone is one of several staff members O'Malley and Rawlings-Blake have shared over the years.
The governor's press secretary, Shaun Adamec, held the same position in Rawlings-Blake's administration; her current spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, is another former O'Malley aide. The governor and incoming mayor also share a fundraiser, Colleen Martin-Lauer.
Rawlings-Blake calls the governor a "mentor" but bristles at the suggestion that he holds undue sway over her. Privately, many council members say they feel that O'Malley exerts a strong influence on her decisions. Many point to her recent surreptitious endorsement of Councilman William H. Cole IV, an O'Malley favorite, as her successor in the council president's office.
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