By Dan Rodricks and Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
7:27 PM EDT, June 10, 2012
Richard N. Dixon, a Carroll County custodian's son who combined financial expertise as a stockbroker with political savvy as a state delegate to become Maryland's first African-American treasurer, died Thursday after suffering a stroke two days earlier. He was 74.
Mr. Dixon, a conservative Democrat in an overwhelmingly white and increasingly Republican Carroll County, served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 14 years. Carroll voters have sent no Democratic legislator to Annapolis since Mr. Dixon's fourth and last election, in 1994.
In 1996, his colleagues in the General Assembly noted Mr. Dixon's experience in fiscal matters and voted him to the powerful post of state treasurer. His election, which made him the first African-American to hold a state constitutional post, came without the support of the state NAACP and only the narrow endorsement of the legislative Black Caucus, a group Mr. Dixon never joined.
As treasurer, Mr. Dixon served on the three-member Board of Public Works and was frequently the swing vote on major state contracts during the years when antagonists Parris N. Glendening and the late William Donald Schaefer served, respectively, as governor and comptroller.
Confident and blunt-spoken, Mr. Dixon resigned as treasurer in 2002 because of poor health and amid controversy over his leadership of the state retirement and pension system. His authoritarian style brought criticism from some of his fellow pension trustees. Mr. Dixon was a persistent advocate of allocating a high percentage of the state's pension money to the stock market. For several years, the strategy paid off, but the fund's performance plunged during the high-tech bust of 2000.
Richard Dixon was one of six children of Thomas and Mamie Dixon, a family that traced its roots back six generations in Carroll County. Mr. Dixon attended the Robert Moton School, a 12-grade school that once provided the only education available to black children in Westminster. The school, Mr. Dixon noted in interviews, had no indoor plumbing until he entered the seventh grade.
Mr. Dixon graduated from what was then Morgan State College in 1960. He joined the Army and trained as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, rising to the rank of captain and serving at a 400-bed field hospital in Vietnam.
After leaving military service in 1968, he looked for a job as a stockbroker. He landed one with Merrill Lynch in Baltimore. In a 1999 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Dixon said he believed he was only the second black broker in the city at the time.
"My brother was smart, thrifty and strong-willed," said one of his sisters, Trudy Dixon Green. "Whenever we asked Richard for an opinion about something, he'd listen to us and say, 'I'll take it under consideration,' and then think about it and get back to us."
Mr. Dixon served on the Carroll County Board of Education from 1970 to 1978; he was board president for two of those years. He also earned a master's degree in business administration from Morgan during those years.
He lost his first bid for the House of Delegates in 1978. Four years later, he tried again and won, becoming the first Democrat elected to the House from Carroll in two decades. "He was considered by everyone a conservative Democrat who looked out for his county," said Donald B. Elliott, a New Windsor Republican who served with Mr. Dixon in the House.
In Annapolis, Mr. Dixon served on the House Appropriations Committee and on subcommittees dealing with the capital budget, economic development and pensions. He impressed people with his knowledge of the budget and with his personal style, driving a red Corvette, smoking cigars and sporting a mink overcoat.
Mr. Dixon built a conservative voting record, sometimes siding with the Republican minority on issues such as tax cuts and finding himself out of step with other Democratic black legislators. But, in a 1996 interview with The Sun, Mr. Dixon noted that his Carroll constituency was 98 percent white. "If I hadn't reflected their wishes, I wouldn't have lasted this long," he said. "I wouldn't have lasted one term."
As treasurer and a member of the public works board, Mr. Dixon frequently sat silently as Mr. Schaefer, the comptroller and former governor, launched attacks against Mr. Glendening, his successor as governor and his political nemesis. As Mr. Dixon increasingly aligned himself with Mr. Glendening, Mr. Schaefer directed his ire at the treasurer, saying he was "embarrassed" by some of Mr. Dixon's stands. Mr. Dixon, in turn, described Mr. Schaefer as "a quirky clown."
The fraying relationship between Mr. Dixon and Mr. Schaefer took on racial overtones when the treasurer objected to Mr. Schaefer's use of the term "Afro-Americans" instead of "African-Americans." Though Mr. Dixon was not known for dwelling on racial issues, Mr. Schaefer retorted that Mr. Dixon objected because "that's the only thing you seem to know."
At times, however, Mr. Dixon and Mr. Schaefer formed a majority against Mr. Glendening. When the governor canceled the Intercounty Connector project and tried to sell the land on which it was to be built, the treasurer and comptroller blocked the sale. Mr. Glendening recalled that the two also thwarted his effort to scuttle, as contrary to his Smart Growth policies, the Hampstead bypass in Carroll County. "That was his county, and he'd been a delegate there," Mr. Glendening said of Mr. Dixon. "The local leadership wanted the bypass." A Hampstead bypass in Carroll County, like the Intercounty Connector, is now open.
Though they were not friends, Mr. Glendening recalled Mr. Dixon as "a team player."
"If he had a problem, he'd let you know and he would often try to work it out beforehand," the former governor said.
Mr. Glendening said that when Mr. Dixon joined the board in 1996, he learned the treasurer was a fitness buff. Sometimes, when the two were in the governor's office at the State House, Mr. Dixon would take off his jacket and do 25 push-ups. "The first time he did that, he just took me totally off guard," Mr. Glendening said.
Nancy K. Kopp, who succeeded Mr. Dixon as state treasurer, called him "committed and conscientious. ... He was clear and confident in his convictions and brought great intelligence and common sense to public service."
A service will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University.
Mr. Dixon is survived by his wife of 52 years, Grayson Dixon; two sons, Timothy and Richard Jr.; and, in addition to Ms. Green, two sisters, Edith Davenport and Twila Mitchell.
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