Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's growing role in Democratic politics has given a boost to her national profile — and to her frequent-flyer miles.
A leader with the Democratic National Committee and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Rawlings-Blake has visited Panama with Vice President Joe Biden and attended summits in Utah, New York and Louisiana. She stumped for Cory Booker as he ran for Senate in New Jersey and rallied young Democrats in San Antonio. She also went to three conferences in Las Vegas.
In all, Rawlings-Blake and her security detail made two dozen out-of-state trips in 2013 — about two a month — for a total of 73 days away. The mayor's supporters applaud her travel, saying she is representing the city well before groups across the country. But some question whether it's possible to govern as effectively from out of town.
"We use a great deal of scrutiny to determine when and if it's necessary for me to travel," Rawlings-Blake said. "The vast majority of trips are declined because it would take me away from critical city business. We have been very clear with both the DNC and others that my first priority is the city."
She is increasingly called upon to serve as a national spokeswoman for the party. Twice in recent months, she's appeared on NBC's "Meet The Press," defending President Barack Obama's health care program and criticizing Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
"Everyone in the political community has noticed that she's been chosen for a higher profile, and presumably she's being groomed for higher office," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "If you're a mayor, you don't end up repeatedly on 'Meet the Press' without powerful people suggesting she's an appropriate Democratic spokesperson. ... It's obvious that she is highly articulate, stays on message, and projects a great image."
Florida Rep. Deborah Wasserman-Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called Rawlings-Blake a "rising star" in the party. She said the mayor has "headlined" events for Democrats in Tennessee, Texas and Nevada.
"She's been a phenomenal addition to our leadership team," Wasserman-Schultz said. "Baltimore benefits because of the relationships the mayor is able to develop, and the access she has to decision-makers. The sky is the limit for Mayor Rawlings-Blake."
Some in Baltimore, however, say the mayor should stay in town more often and attend more community meetings about local issues. For instance, in Morrell Park, where state and city officials support construction of a $90 million CSX Transportation project that many in the community oppose, residents have repeatedly asked Rawlings-Blake to attend meetings on the subject.
Wendy Roberts, vice president of the Morrell Park Community Association, doesn't understand why the mayor can travel to so many states but can't attend an association meeting.
"I would love her to come to Morrell Park to one of our meetings about CSX," Roberts said. "We wish she would give us insight. We're still saying no to CSX in Morrell Park. It's too residential."
Dale Hargrave, president of the New Greenmount West Community Association, said city taxpayer dollars should not be used for mayoral travel.
"If it's coming out of her pocket, I don't have a problem with it," he said. "If it's coming out of our pockets, I got a problem with it."
Rawlings-Blake's out-of-state trips in 2013 cost city taxpayers about $32,000 — most of it for the police officers who travel nearly everywhere with her, according to city records reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.
Travel costs for the mayor's executive protection unit were $25,676. That includes their expenses to accompany her on personal vacations — to Los Angeles, Atlanta and Rehoboth, Del. — for which taxpayers paid about $3,000 for her security.
The city paid $6,689 for Rawlings-Blake's travel and lodging, including her trips to Utah, Washington and Las Vegas for meetings of the Conference of Mayors, of which she is vice president.
Overall, sponsoring organizations covered her costs for about half the trips. For instance, the Democratic National Committee, of which she is secretary, flew Rawlings-Blake and her security team to at least six different events in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Antonio and New York, records show.
Rawlings-Blake said the traveling doesn't interfere with her work as mayor of Baltimore, adding that she attended 600 community events and meetings last year.
"I am in regular contact with my staff while away on travel, and I've made sure that clear lines of authority are set in place in my absence to make sure that city business continues as efficiently as possible," she said. She said her work with the Conference of Mayors has helped her to win grants for childhood obesity initiatives, lead paint removal and financial literacy in Baltimore.
Political observers say Rawlings-Blake is traveling more than her immediate predecessor, Sheila Dixon, but not doing as much international travel as Gov. Martin O'Malley did while mayor or Kurt L. Schmoke before him.