Former mayor Sheila Dixon sees herself as Baltimore's future, not its past

Sheila Dixon's supporters believe she was "robbed," urge on her write-in campaign.

Unlike most former Baltimore mayors, a portrait of Sheila Dixon does not hang in City Hall.

That's because Dixon — who would need to commission such a work — isn't ready to think of herself as belonging to the past. She believes she's very much a part of Baltimore's future. As she travels the city, her supporters loudly agree.

"We know you got robbed!" a man shouts to Dixon, the first female mayor of Baltimore, at an election rally at Mondawmin Mall. "We know you won!" another yells.

Since April's error-filled Democratic primary in Baltimore, many Dixon supporters have questioned whether she or rival state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh won that closely contested election. No one has more questions than Dixon herself, who asks openly, "Did I really lose?"

Citing irregularities at some polling places, the Maryland State Board of Elections took the unusual step of ordering the city's elections results decertified. A state review found 1,650 ballots were improperly handled. Eight data files went missing for about a day, and some felons — eligible to vote under a new law — received a letter erroneously telling them they might not be able to vote.

Though the election results were eventually recertified, Dixon believes there's enough doubt about who won to warrant another try.

"People are leery about even voting in this upcoming general election," she said.

Dixon, 62, energized what had been a rather low-key mayoral race — between Pugh, Republican Alan Walden and Green Party candidate Joshua Harris — when she announced her write-in campaign last week. A Democrat has been voted Baltimore's mayor in every election since 1963.

But even though Dixon garnered more than 46,000 votes during the primary, several political analysts see the write-in effort as quixotic.

"Unfortunately for her, the chances are just not good, despite her incredible name recognition," said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs. "We're in a situation where we are only three weeks away from the election, and this write-in campaign was launched quite late in the game."

The presidential election will not do Dixon any favors, Hartley said. Pugh, the Democratic Party nominee, will likely benefit from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's coattails, he said.

"Dixon is a very popular public servant, but it takes a lot to get someone to write in a name in a down-ballot race," Hartley says. "I think we'll see a big victory for Pugh."

During April's primary, Pugh's 2,400-vote victory came via early voting; Dixon narrowly won a majority of votes on Election Day. Some Dixon supporters accuse the Pugh campaign of trying to steal the election during early voting by promising poor Baltimoreans jobs and food in exchange for votes. Pugh denies the allegation.

"There's a feeling that things went wrong, things went crazy, and the election results were tainted," said community activist Ralph Moore, who plans to vote for Dixon. "People hear that Sheila won on Election Day, and the stories of shenanigans linger — stories of chicken boxes and promises of jobs for votes.

"Poor Catherine goes in with that taint among certain people that will never go away," Moore said.

Veteran educator Linda Eberhart, a Dixon supporter, watched officials every day as they worked to recertify the primary election. When the process was closed to the public, the Dixon team went to court to force it open.

Eberhart said she "could not find the proof" that showed problems during the primary cost Dixon the win.

When Dixon announced her write-in effort, she drew dozens of reporters and boisterous supporters to the Baltimore City Board of Elections headquarters. Although some of Dixon's primary campaign team is sitting out the write-in effort, her remaining backers do not lack for passion.

For instance, Christina Flowers, an advocate for the homeless, has been leading a "street team" rounding up support even late at night.

As Dixon campaigners passed out write-in literature to shoppers at Mondawmin Mall this week, they made enough of a scene that security guards informed them such politicking was against mall policy.

As a guard escorted them to the door, he quietly told Dixon he planned to write her in.

Supporters recall Dixon's term in office fondly. They argue city agencies back then responded to residents' complaints more quickly. And, if they didn't, a resident could contact Dixon directly to get the issue addressed.

"Do you know what people say when you mention Sheila Dixon? 'Oh well I called her about the rat problem and it was fixed,'" said supporter Jasmine L. Gibson. "That's powerful stuff there. It sends a chill down your spine when the power distance between you and the mayor is short, where you can reach and hold her accountable for a basic need like eliminating a rat problem.

"I think that's most importantly why Dixon needs to run, not just should run."

Dixon's pitch is simple: She was an effective mayor who was forced from office too soon by a state prosecution.

She points to how homicides and crime dropped under her watch while shifting from former Mayor Martin O'Malley's "zero tolerance" policing strategy. And she notes her creation of an easy-to-use recycling program and the Charm City Circulator bus system.

During the primary election, Dixon campaigned on targeting gun offenders to reduce crime, instituting a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the city and speeding up demolition of vacant properties.

"None of the other candidates have the experience and are able to hit the ground and run," Dixon said.

"I know what it takes — with management and leadership — to move the city forward," she said.

Dixon, who was mayor from 2007 to 2010, resigned after entering an Alford plea to a perjury charge. The plea allowed her to maintain innocence while acknowledging prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her of failing to disclose gifts from her then-boyfriend, Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who benefited from city tax breaks and contracts.

In a related case, a Baltimore jury found Dixon guilty of embezzling $500 worth of retail gift cards intended for the needy.

Dixon has apologized but argues her violations were more about paperwork issues than a moral failing.

After the criminal case, she remains popular in Baltimore. Dixon, a Hunting Ridge resident, won 170 of 200 predominantly African-American precincts in the primary. She struggled in predominantly white areas.

She acknowledges she faces a tough challenge and not everyone believes she can be successful. She said she's heard from former supporters and donors who are "scared" to publicly back her for fear Pugh will punish them if she wins. Pugh has declined to discuss Dixon's entrance into the race.

"I know this is an uphill battle, but I'm ready to take this challenge," Dixon said. "I'm getting a mixed reception. ... People support me. They want to see me as mayor. There are some people who feel that this is going to be difficult."

Moore said he will continue to back her because she has "the people's touch." He said many believe Dixon represents a bigger change from current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake than Pugh does.

"People think Cathy is going to be just like Stephanie," Moore said. "For better or for worse, people think we need something more and better."

Even so, Moore said, he will not be "as active" for Dixon as he was during the primary. "I've seen many a campaign where people tried to do a write-in. They sputter and they don't get very far," he said.

After Mondawmin Mall, Dixon headed to West Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, her home congregation, for an event promoting voting.

Dixon sat in a pew near the middle of the church. Behind her was a row of supporters dressed in red Dixon campaign T-shirts. Much of the church, however, was empty.

The Rev. Patrick D. Clayborn lamented that there weren't more people in attendance. How many people died so African-Americans could have the right to vote? he asked. "There are people who want to take that right from us," he said.

Dixon looked up and nodded. As the event went on, a couple of people got up and left.

If her write-in campaign is not successful, Dixon said, maybe she will finally commission that portrait for City Hall.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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Sheila Dixon

Age: 62

Job: Marketing director, Maryland Minority Contractors Association

Experience: City Council member, 1987-1999; City Council president, 1999-2007; mayor of Baltimore, 2007-2010.

Education: Northwestern High; bachelor's degree, Towson University; master's degree, Johns Hopkins University

Home: Hunting Ridge

Family: Divorced, mother of two

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