First in a series of profiles of candidates for mayor
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon and 20 volunteers are bounding down a street in West Baltimore's Panway neighborhood.
Dressed almost entirely in red, they stop traffic. Cars pull over to honk approval. Men get out to take photos with the former mayor. At nearly every door on which Dixon knocks, she's greeted with a hug.
"We're praying for you!" one woman shouts from her window. "God bless you, Ms. Dixon!" another calls out.
To those who have not known Dixon for years, this scene might seem perplexing. Isn't this the same woman who left office amid scandal?
Yet six years after Dixon was found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for the poor, thousands of Baltimoreans want her to return. She's led or been tied for the lead in every mayoral poll. Dixon supporters have begun printing posters that say, "Baltimore wants their mayor back."
"The reception she receives is startling," says E.R. Shipp, an associate professor at Morgan State University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. "That was apparent at a community awards ceremony I attended in West Baltimore — where the crowd went nuts for her — and it was even more apparent at Freddie Gray's funeral, where she was more warmly received than anyone else, including Jesse Jackson.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and former Mayor Sheila Dixon are locked in a virtual tie in the Democratic race to become Baltimore's next mayor, a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore shows.
"If you have lived here and been the beneficiary of her one-on-one outreach, then you might understand," said Shipp, who writes a column for The Baltimore Sun's opinion section every other week.
To understand the enduring appeal of Dixon, consider the story of 26-year-old Linzy Jackson. As a 10-year-old boy, he once stopped Dixon on the street to ask for a soda. She began mentoring him, and made sure he went to college and pursued a career in government.
Or consider 50-year-old Aloma Davenport-El. Three decades ago, Dixon helped her pass a high school equivalency exam. She's been a backer ever since.
Or state Del. Antonio Hayes, who as a member of the Dixon administration was assigned— along with other city managers — to drive behind snow plows to make sure the streets were getting cleared.
"I said, 'You want me to go out in a blizzard with my little car?'" Hayes recalls. "She said, 'Absolutely. We need to check on these people, and make sure they're getting the services they need.'"
Due to Dixon's strong base of support, forces have risen to stop her in the April 26 Democratic primary for mayor. Two groups — a Super PAC called Clean Slate Baltimore and a nonprofit called Baltimore Rising — push anti-Dixon material. They've run negative ads, filed a complaint with state prosecutors about her campaign finance reports and hired young men to pass out fliers at mayoral forums telling voters that Dixon is a criminal.
When Dixon's daughter, Jasmine, appeared in a campaign ad for her mother, she received threatening emails. Similar messages went to other supporters.
"I take it in stride," Dixon says. "Nobody's perfect. But other people think they are."
The negative ads seem immaterial in Panway, a black working-class neighborhood near Mondawmin Mall.
Many Dixon supporters view her court case like this: A successful black woman rose too high and was railroaded by a Republican-appointed prosecutor. She was subjected to the indignity of having her home raided and her reputation tarnished.
Dixon apologizes generally about the case, but sees her violation as more of a paperwork issue than a moral failing. If only she had declared the gift cards and other gifts from developers on her ethics forms, she would still be mayor, she says.
A jury cleared her of five charges, but found Dixon guilty of misdemeanor embezzlement. She later pleaded guilty to committing perjury by not reporting the gifts from developers and agreed to step down.
"I made a bad choice," she says. "I learned from that mistake. ... I paid the price."
A poll in November for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore showed that nearly half of Democrats were less likely to vote for Dixon because of the case. White voters were more reluctant to support her than black voters.
Dixon's reaction to her public fall only strengthened Davenport-El's support. Dixon, naturally shy, didn't hide. She stayed active at her church, Bethel AME, and visited Davenport-El when her grandson was murdered last year. Dixon is authentic and understands what it's like to struggle, Davenport-El says.
"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," she said. "I admired how she carried herself through it. She didn't leave the church. She didn't become bitter. She remained who she is. I feel like that is awesome."
Dixon generally avoids talking about the court case. But it sometimes comes up in media interviews and mayoral forums — not her favorite venues.
She prefers to be out on the streets with the public, she says.
As she knocks on doors, Dixon rarely gets a chance to stress her platform: detailed plans for crime reduction, job growth and public health. She wants to target repeat violent offenders, increase the minimum wage for city workers to $15 hourly and implement a plan to end HIV in Baltimore by 2030.
Instead, as she makes her way through Panway, she mostly scolds people about their lifestyle choices. One man who has stopped his car to greet her is both smoking a cigarette and drinking a soda — two of Dixon's pet peeves.
"Cigarettes and soda? You've got to take care of yourself," she says.
Coming from someone else, this sentence might be off-putting. Not from Dixon.
"You're right, Ms. Dixon," the man says, before hugging her.
"The love for her in the deep pockets of East and West Baltimore, it's an affection that transcends being a political leader," says Hayes, the state delegate who worked in her administration. "They almost see her as Auntie Sheila."
First woman mayor
Dixon, a divorced mother of two, became Baltimore's first woman mayor when she succeeded Martin O'Malley in January 2007, after he was elected governor. She easily won a four-year term in November 2007.
With less than seven weeks to the primary election in the Baltimore mayor's race, leading Democratic candidates say they're planning a large increase in campaign spending — especially on television ads.
The daughter of a well-known car salesman — who sold to black residents at a time when they weren't welcome in white dealerships — Dixon was among a wave of black politicians to rise to power in Baltimore in the 1980s, eventually making the City Council majority-black in the 1990s.
During a 1991 debate at City Hall on redistricting, she caused a stir when she took off one of her shoes, held it up and told white City Council members: "Now the shoe is on the other foot."
As mayor, Dixon ended O'Malley's practice of "zero tolerance" policing, shifting to a targeted enforcement strategy. She hired a new police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, and saw homicides drop to a 20-year low. She introduced an easy-to-use recycling program and created the Charm City Circulator. During her tenure the city sued banking giant Wells Fargo for allegedly singling out black residents for high-interest subprime mortgages, leading to foreclosures and vacant properties.
When a fire recruit, Racheal Wilson, died during a training exercise, Dixon took the tragedy "really, really personally," Hayes recalls.
"Every year after that incident, she was still inviting Racheal's kids to the circus," Hayes says. "She made sure those young people had some support."
But Dixon was faulted for ethical missteps. She was accused of trying to steer city business to a company that employed her sister, a charge she denies. She dated a developer who worked on city contracts and accepted lavish gifts from him — including certificates she used to buy fur coats.
At the time, Dixon defended the gifts as part of a personal relationship that did not affect her professional decisions.
For months, Dixon has been working long days on the campaign. She's up at 5 a.m. for morning media interviews, meets with various interest groups throughout the day and attends mayoral forums nearly every evening.
She keeps her sanity, she says, through regular exercise and a strong belief in her Christian faith. Dixon has been endorsed by the well-respected Bishop John Bryant and says more testimonials from ministers are coming.
State prosecutors have been asked to examine the campaign finance reports of Sheila Dixon — six years after Dixon was forced to resign as Baltimore mayor, a position she is seeking to reclaim in this year's election.
As she heads into a mayoral forum, young men are outside passing out anti-Dixon material produced by the Clean Slate PAC. Dixon says she's spoken with some of these workers and asked how much they were being paid.
"A couple of them said to me they felt bad and were embarrassed to do this, but they get paid $13 per hour," Dixon says. "I said, 'I understand. You've got to do what you've got to do.'"