(CNSNews.com) - Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, criticized for giving people too much space to protest during the recent rioting in her city, has an additional job: On Monday, she was sworn in as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a group that influences national urban policy.
"She's been elected by her peers," said USCM CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran. "It's one of the highest honors you can have as a mayor. For one year, she's America's mayor. It's a very powerful position."
As conference president, Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, will set the organization's agenda, appoint committee and task force chairs and serve as the national spokesperson for the one-year term that runs through June 2016.
"At a time when women, and African-American women especially, still face many challenges, the honor of being a female president of this organization and the first African-American female president is not lost on me," Rawlings-Blake said in her inaugural speech.
She talked about the problems in her own city, including the rioting and looting that erupted two months ago after a black man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody:
"I can't tell you the heartbreak, seeing my city descend into that type of violence and unrest," Rawlings-Blake said. "To see the pain of the Gray family at the loss of their loved one, as well as the outrage of the community. To see some destroy their neighborhoods. To see others throw bricks and rocks at our first responders. To see businesses looted. To see the |National Guard marching down the streets with automatic assault rifles. To see anyone harmed throughout that vey long two weeks.
"I pray that you and your cities never have to go through it. But prayer won't be enough...Don't think it can't happen in any of your cities," she told her fellow mayors.
At a news conference in late April, on the third day of the Baltimore unrest, Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she'd instructed police to "do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech.
"It's a very delicate balancing act," she explained at the time, "because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other, you know, things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate, and that's what you saw."
A few days later, amid criticism that she unduly restrained the police response to the looting and burning, Rawlings-Blake said her remarks about "space to destroy" were "mischaracterized."
In her speech to the mayors on Monday, Rawlings-Blake said large segments of America's inner cities feel "disenfranchised, disaffected and disgusted. They don't see the positivity that occurs in other parts of town." She said it's an issue of opportunity, jobs and education as much as it is an issue of policing.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors plans to hold its annual leadership meeting in Baltimore in September.
"There, we will develop a multi-point plan that we will take to (presidential) candidates of both parties and their primaries," Rawlings-Blake said. "We will call this plan the Baltimore compact, after the name of the city in which it will be ratified."