Landers, who stepped down as vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors recently to focus on his campaign, says Dixon is still popular.

"When I'm out there campaigning, for the most part people say they respect the job Sheila was doing," he said. He acknowledged that some are "bitter" or "disappointed" by her actions.

Observers say Dixon's depth of knowledge makes her a powerful ally. Some say voters might be willing to forgive Dixon's ethical lapses.

"She can rebuild herself as a consigliore," said Lester Spence, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "There are still a number of people who really like her, who think she made a mistake, but it was a minor mistake."

Spence pointed to Marion Barry, who was re-elected mayor of Washington even after he served six months in federal prison on drug charges. He currently serves on the City Council there.

Dixon was found guilty in late 2009 of stealing about $500 in gift cards given to her by a developer who said they were intended for the needy. She agreed in January 2010 to resign from office, donate $45,000 to charity and complete 500 hours of community service to settle both the theft charge and a separate perjury charge.

Under the plea deal, her record is to be wiped clean at the end of a two-year probation. The settlement allowed her to keep her $83,000 annual pension.

Spence said he expects many Baltimoreans, particularly African-Americans who took pride in Dixon's role as the city's first black female mayor, to forgive her transgressions.

"Given what she was found guilty of, in five, six years she can be a legitimate candidate," he said.

But at her age — she's 57 — he added, she needs to make a comeback sooner rather than later.

"She's just pushing up against a point where it would be too late," he said. "If she wants to run in 2015, she needs to be involved now."

Donald Norris, chair of the public policy department at University of Maryland Baltimore County, questioned whether voters would give Dixon another chance.

"She was convicted of a crime, and that crime was stealing from the poorest of the poor," he said. "I just don't see how someone with that her in background can be re-elected to an office she was thrown out of."

Norris said candidates who sought Dixon's counsel were "tawdry." "It sends a message to voters… that they are interested in winning, more than ethics," he said.

Dixon says she is enjoying her life outside of politics. She has been working for the Maryland Minority Contractors Association and spending more time with her children, a son in high school and a daughter who recently graduated from college. To fulfill the community service requirement of her probation, she also has been volunteering with a mentoring group and a nonprofit that works with the homeless.

But she might not be finished with elective office.

"I definitely love public life, being a public servant," she said. "Even today, people come to me for help."

She says she has not yet decided whether she will run for mayor in 2015. But she says she would run even if an ally is in the mayor's office.

Rolley admits with a laugh that Dixon has warned him she could run against him in 2015 if he is elected.

"I've told her, 'It's my hope to be doing such a good job, that you feel that you don't have to.'"