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Career built on grit and empathy ends

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Sheila Dixon's natural instinct has always been to fight. She battled to become City Council president, and, later, mayor of Baltimore. She attained the office in 2007 after a decade of preparation.

But on Wednesday, Dixon resisted her hard-edged inclinations and pleaded guilty to a charge of perjury, halting a political career built through steely determination and an ability to connect with average people in her hometown.

At a City Hall news conference convened after her final courtroom appearance, Dixon displayed a little-glimpsed vulnerable side, choking on tears and taking some responsibility for her legal woes.But the grit soon returned. She refused to apologize for mistakes and continued to blame others for the turmoil the city has experienced during a long probe into City Hall corruption that culminated with a criminal trial on charges that she stole gifts intended for needy families. "I can't explain why the citizens had to go through this," Dixon said. "I think the citizens have to ask the prosecutors, not me."

That aggressive personality served her well for years.

As mayor, she harangued local businesses to provide jobs for her favored YouthWorks program, attacked the city's stubborn crime problem, began construction on a new homeless center and overhauled garbage pickup schedules.

But autonomy and a propensity to defy the status quo also became weaknesses. Dixon insisted on keeping a state job while working as City Council president despite a ruling by a state board that the positions caused a conflict of interest. When she advocated for a company that employed her sister in a 2006 City Council hearing, she piqued the interest of State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, who opened an investigation that led to her conviction.

"She was very independent, very independent thinking," said Anthony McCarthy, a former Dixon spokesman. "She had very few close advisers. She relied on her own counsel for a lot of stuff. At the end of the day, maybe that was problematic."

Former Rep. and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, once a mentor, was more blunt. "You need to hear from the outside," Mfume said. "In elected office it is easy to look at the mirror. It is always better to look out the window."

Dixon was raised in a working-class West Baltimore family with no ties to elected officials. Her first taste of politics came when her mother served as a volunteer on Mfume's City Council race - and brought Dixon along.

A former kindergarten teacher and twice-divorced, Dixon is the mother of two and helped raise a nephew, Juan Dixon, a star basketball player at University of Maryland who went on to the NBA. In a reflective moment during a break in court proceedings Wednesday, she recalled nursing her infant daughter Jasmine while chairing a hearing just after joining the council.

Dixon was elected to the City Council in 1987 and aggressively supported the agenda of then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. In what came to be viewed as the defining moment in a 12-year council career, she once removed her footwear and waved it at a white colleague during a debate about redrawing council district lines, insisting that the "shoe was on the other foot" as power shifted to black leaders such as herself.

Voters made Dixon City Council president in 1999, part of a slate that included Martin O'Malley, a councilman seeking the mayor's office. Even as he became mayor, many thought O'Malley had an eye on the governor's mansion, and Dixon knew what could be next for her, associates said.

"She was waiting for her time to take the reins," McCarthy said. "I think it was a strategic partnership between them."

But her new position meant more scrutiny, accompanied by unflattering publicity.

A state ethics board questioned whether she could continue to hold a part-time state job with the Department of Business and Economic Development.

But she relinquished the position only after intense focus from the media. "I had enough of taking the pressure of the media and the state board and costing me attorney fees. I just had enough," Dixon said in a recent interview.

In 2002, the council was sued after Dixon held a closed-door meeting with other members to discuss potential legislation. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the meeting violated the state's Open Meetings Act, and the proposal was killed because of the way Dixon handled it.

Expectations were low when Dixon became mayor after O'Malley's 2006 gubernatorial victory. "My God, when we went in this we didn't think he had a chance in hell with her," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Democrat and head of the city's Annapolis delegation.

But her style became more inclusive and less brash as she grew into the job, Anderson said. "Coming out, I think this women was amazing." The difference in her demeanor from City Council president to mayor was "like day and night," he said.

She won her own seat in 2007, promising a platform that would make the city cleaner and greener.

Others noticed a more collaborative approach. On walks through the city she would chide residents for failing to recycle - but did it with a chuckle instead of a finger wag. She reversed budget cuts to child care centers after City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke developed an alternative. She approved plans she did not initially support - signing into law a measure that would expand the areas where live entertainment is allowed that was championed by Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.

She also made smaller gestures that earned loyalty and respect - earlier this year she lent a treadmill to a top aide who was confronted with a family tragedy, telling him that exercise would strengthen the spirit.

But sometimes she'd dig in on issues that caused political damage for no obvious gain. Last year, as the economy tanked, she voted to give city elected leaders a pay raise and then initially refused to give it back. Later, she drew criticism when her city solicitor began drawing up plans to allow taxpayers to cover the legal fees she amassed to defend herself against the criminal charges.

And despite her charismatic personality, she sometimes had a difficult time getting her message out.

Over the summer, amid daily news stories about her criminal case, she told a reporter that the legal case against her "hopefully will be gone sooner [rather] than later."

"I know it is hard for you to believe," she chided, "that I love the people and the progress we are making in this city."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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