'All Baltimore' Dixon - and all Baltimore - await mayor's decision

Michael Olesker

SINCE NONE of us can gaze into the complex mind of Mayor Martin O'Malley, we look for little clues. Will he take a shot at governor, or will he not? Sheila Dixon, sitting at O'Malley's right hand, last week seemed to offer a peek into her future at City Hall. Or maybe she was just daydreaming a little in public.

She wrote a letter to this newspaper about becoming mayor of Baltimore. If O'Malley is elected governor, the City Council president automatically gets his old job. Dixon's letter makes it clear that she's already making contingency plans.

But she left unanswered a couple of questions: Does Dixon know something the rest of us do not? Has O'Malley confided gubernatorial campaign plans with her in ways he has not confided with others? Are transition operations already in the works?

In her letter, Dixon says she is responding to "hypothetical scenarios" suggested in a Sun editorial a few days earlier. The editorial urged O'Malley to stay where he is. The implication did not flatter Dixon. The editorial pronounced the possibility of O'Malley's leaving "gloomy."

Dixon knows why. Though the editorial pronounces O'Malley's work promising but "unfulfilled," Dixon knows the ambivalence that surrounds her. "First and foremost," she says early in her letter, she wants to be "a voice for all Baltimoreans."

"Is that a reference to the shoe?" Dixon was asked at week's end.

"Of course," she said.

The shoe incident goes back a dozen years but remains vivid in the city's psychological history. During a time of racial edginess, at a vitriolic public meeting at City Hall to redraw council lines, Dixon took off one of her shoes, waved it about and pounded a table, and in a shrill voice cried, "The shoe is on the other foot now."

The words were aimed at white members of the council, a few of whom were muttering racially tinged remarks of their own but wisely kept them under their breath. Dixon became a symbol of the city's racial testiness. Two years ago, when she ran for council president and campaigned in white neighborhoods as well as black, she tried to redefine herself.

The shoe incident, she acknowledged that summer, haunted her.

And still does.

"The stigma," she called it last week. "It's something that's put on you. But I've done a lot of outreach since then. We have a very diverse community, and I'm reaching out to everyone -- Hispanics, Koreans, churches, all faith-based groups, Jews, Muslims.

"I'm a Baltimorean, born and raised. I tried to leave, and realized I was destined to be here. I've tried to make a commitment. I've experienced some of the ills that hold us back. And I'm a product of all that, and I know what it does to people."

If this sounds like someone preparing to lead an entire city, how might it connect to O'Malley's plans? The mayor has famously kept everyone guessing for many months now, producing one of the great whispered-rumor campaigns of the modern era.

"The mayor," said Dixon, "has been wavering. It's sort of like when I was making a decision on running for council president or getting out entirely. I wasn't gonna do another term in the council. If you don't grow in this business, you stagnate."

That's Dixon's argument, but not O'Malley's. He's talked about running for governor to help the city in ways that a mayor cannot -- increased funding of municipal projects, for example. The notion of personal stagnation doesn't precisely fit for a guy who's been on the job only a couple of years.

"Honestly, he hasn't said anything to me," Dixon said. "But he did say he would definitely tell me when he does decide. I asked him for a heads-up when the time comes. He said he's still pondering."

This leaves us pondering questions of Dixon as mayor.

"Despite The Sun's perspective of me," Dixon said, "in my 12 years, I've gotten to know the city agencies and the ins and outs of how they operate. Martin was singly focused on crime before he became mayor. I'm not. You can still get into a conversation with him about something, and he'll bring it back to crime."

If Dixon's reach is broader, it's also brought her some criticism. She still works two jobs -- she's an international trade representative for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development -- but says she's giving up the moonlighting "soon. And I wouldn't keep it if I became mayor.

"I love the [state] job, it's my sanity. It's how Martin feels with his band, or Joan" -- city Comptroller Joan Pratt -- "with her accounting firm. But I'm the only one who gets picked on for my extra job."

All of which might be a moot point if O'Malley runs for governor -- and is elected. And Sheila Dixon, instead of waving a shoe and becoming a public heel, instead becomes mayor of "all Baltimore."
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