A Sun snapshot: Should Dixon stay?

In the market and at the bus stop, over glasses of wine and under the barber's clippers, the daily rhythm of life in Baltimore has been interrupted by a question reverberating through many a conversation: Should Mayor Sheila Dixon, convicted of embezzlement, continue to run the city?

With emotions and opinions running the gamut and residents expressing everything from condemnation to support for Dixon, a sampling of 383 residents contacted by The Baltimore Sun found clear leanings:

Most of those questioned believe Dixon has done a good job as mayor. But despite that approval, a solid majority - including many of those who like what she has done for the city - say she should now leave office.

In an attempt to take the temperature of the city in the wake of a jury finding the mayor guilty of taking gift cards intended for the needy, The Sun dispatched 25 journalists to question residents of 15 neighborhoods selected for how they reflect the geographic, economic and racial diversity of the city as a whole.

More snapshot than science, the interviews nonetheless capture the current climate as Dixon and her lawyers and advisers mull her next legal and political moves, and she attempts to govern amid the overwhelming distraction of her ongoing woes.

"She might have a title but she won't have the support," Darnell Martin, 29, said as he sat on the steps of his aunt's brick rowhouse in West Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood. "If she did it one time, what makes you think she wouldn't do it again?"

If there is a bit of hope for the mayor at the moment, The Sun picked up a certain willingness to give Dixon another chance, with about half of those questioned open to supporting her should she run for office in the future.

"We all make mistakes, you know," said Cleveland Milton, who is in his 60s and was shopping on Reisterstown Road near Fallstaff. "So there is forgiveness."

Steve Stafford, 48, of Dickeyville, agreed, saying, "I guess I believe, ultimately, people can learn from their mistakes, and she's certainly done a good job with the city."

Racial differences emerge
In a city where racial and class divides ripple below the surface of daily life, The Sun found differences in how racial groups viewed the mayor. Black residents were almost evenly divided on whether the mayor should stay or go, but more than three times as many white residents wanted Dixon out as preferred her to remain.

Still, more striking was that the mayor has impassioned friends and now, perhaps, even more opponents across all groups.

From Stafford's quaint West Baltimore enclave of picket fences, cobblestone streets and 200-year-old houses, to harsher neighborhoods of boarded-up rowhouses, weedy empty lots and stores selling mostly liquor and lottery tickets, residents volubly shared views on the woman many referred to simply as "Sheila."

From this familiarity came a sense of betrayal - from those who watched proudly as someone much like them, an African-American woman from a modest background, ascended to the city's highest office, from those who cheered the reduction in crime under her watch and her commitment to cleaner streets, from those who felt her compassion and concern for their issues.

Robin Rogers, for example, struggles to make ends meet on a part-time job cleaning M&T Bank Stadium during football season, and said she had to sell her home of eight years when she could no longer afford it.

"Poor people like us voted for her," said Rogers, 51, "and she stole from us."

Especially in neighborhoods where poverty and crime are a crushing and daily presence, the idea that a mayor who makes $151,700 a year spent gift cards intended for the needy on herself cuts deeply.

Charles Broom, 74, has never made more than $15 an hour in his 30 years driving a cement truck for the city and was rankled when Dixon cited her own children and their tuitions last year when she and fellow top officials surreptitiously awarded each other pay raises.

"My daughter put herself through college," he said, as he and a friend stopped to buy food at a convenience store on West Baltimore Street.

A 'trivial' wrong, a lot of good
And yet, at the same time, there were those who thought the amount that Dixon was convicted of embezzling, about $500, paled in comparison to the good that she has done for the city.

"Trivial," Joanne Morin of Hamilton kept repeating as she sat on one of the Baltimore: Greatest City in America benches along Harford Road, her voice rising an annoyed octave each time. "Just trivial. I mean, so what?"

Mary Sirico, 37, who lives in Canton and was lunching near O'Donnell Square, also characterized Dixon's infraction as "a minor thing."

"I think she really is trying to make changes to bring the city together," Sirico said. "It would be devastating for the city if she was asked to leave at this point. We're just starting to get it off the ground."

Others were willing to keep a scandal-crippled mayor over a less-known quantity.

Dixon "grew into the job," said Elise Hancock, waiting in line at the Roland Park post office. "If all they could find was a couple of gift cards, oh well ...

"I think half of Sheila Dixon is better" than the alternative, she said.

Should Dixon leave, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake would take over as mayor, a prospect that most of those questioned viewed with uncertainty. Four in 10 city residents said they didn't know enough about her, The Sun found. And some were hard-pressed to think of who might run in the next mayoral election.

"Baltimore City has not provided the type of candidates to make a good selection for mayor, specifically," said Ronald Hamilton, 62, a longtime city resident who works for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "If someone could name three good candidates for mayor, they'd be stretching."

Question of fate stirs passion
For now, though, the most passionate debate is over Dixon, whose status remains in limbo as her defense team shapes its response to the recent verdict and who still faces a pending perjury case for failing to report on city ethics forms lavish gifts from a developer.

At this point, Janet Peterkin is tired of the drawn-out legal drama. "We are spending money on a perjury trial?" the 47-year-old Canton resident said as she sipped wine in a bar in the neighborhood. "We already know she's a thief. Now we'll know she's a liar. So what?"

Other residents remained eager to discuss, at length, the various aspects of Dixon's cases, jumping into conversations about the mayor that they overheard in passing and pointing out gathering spots where someone was always expounding on the just-concluded trial.

"She stole from the poor!" Anthony Speller called out as he heard a neighbor on East 23rd Street offering a more sympathetic spin on Dixon's conviction.

"If you gave someone gift certificates, you would not give them in small denominations like that," Speller said, referring to Dixon's lawyers' contentions that she mistakenly thought the cards were a personal present.

Still, even Speller, who thinks Dixon should step down, leaves open the possibility of supporting her should she run for office in the future.

"I sold drugs and I got caught," Speller, 43, said. "I made a mistake in life and I would want to be forgiven, so I could get a good job."

Instead, at least for now, he wandered the neighborhood, trying to sell a couple of exercise devices to anyone he met.

For others, the fact that Dixon misappropriated a small amount, about $500 worth of gift cards, fell on deaf ears. Go to Central Booking any day, one man said, and you'll see people there for crimes involving even smaller amounts.

"There are consequences for everything," Terrence Mobley, 24, of Greenmount said. "If it was me, I'd be in jail."

Gesturing to the Family Dollar in The Alameda shopping center, Reginald Thomas, 45, contended, "If I go into the store and pick something up and walk out without paying for it, they're going to call the police.

"The amount doesn't matter to me," the North Baltimore resident said. "What mattered to me was morality and principles. ... That's a breach of trust."

A lawbreaking crime-fighter?
The irony for some is that they believe Dixon has helped curtail crime on the streets.

"Crime has dropped down, I believe, a significant amount since she has come into office; drugs are not as easy to come by," said Frank Sollenberger, an unemployed carpenter panhandling in front of the Pratt library's Southeast Anchor Branch.

"If it had been anyone else, they would have kicked us out," Sollenberger said of Dixon's misappropriation of the cards. "But just to make it fair for regular society, for her to be kicked out of office would be fair."

Dixon's conviction carries a particular sting for women, particularly among African Americans, some told The Sun, because of her historic role as the first woman to become Baltimore's mayor.

"I'm disappointed, I'm hurt," said Lilyan Lyle, a recently laid-off advertising manager from Bel-Air Edison. "I'm about the same age she is. When I see her, I see myself."

The Dixon trial has brought a black eye to Baltimore and the sooner the mayor leaves office, the sooner the city can get back on track, said Lyle, shopping for Christmas ornaments at a discount store on Belair Road. "She really blew it. It's done, and she needs to move on."

Darleeta Brown, a 54-year-old clerical worker walking to her home in Sandtown-Winchester, echoed the sentiment.

"It's a special privilege to be chosen to do these kinds of jobs, and we fought so long to get these jobs because of our race," she said. "And then when they get in there they act like fools. They get greedy, power-hungry."

Brown said Dixon should "step down now so she can give our race a chance to heal. She needs to accept that she is a criminal and go on home."

The interviews found that black women such as Brown, long the core of Dixon's political base, were slightly less inclined to forgive the mayor than black men.

But if Dixon's race and gender were a point of pride for some, others wonder if being a black woman made her a target as well.

"When the fog clears, she was set up," said Ronald Evans, who runs a computer laboratory at Coppin State University and was taking a late lunch break at Mondawmin Mall.

"I believe they wanted her out," he said, invoking unnamed adversaries of the mayor. "It was a set-up and it worked. If they want you bad enough, you're gone."

Does punishment fit crime?
Additionally, the potential cost of her crime is outsized compared to the transgression, some said, given that Dixon stands to lose not just her salary but her pension, should she be forced from office.

"The woman's going to lose everything for this?" Marian E. Campbell, 71, of Greenmount wondered. "I don't know what she was thinking. I don't think she was thinking."

While some believe Dixon erred, they wonder if other politicians may have crossed similar lines but not been caught.

"Politicians have been taking from the poor forever," Thomas Brown, 40, of North Baltimore said. It doesn't make it right, he said, but "every day, so many people do so much worse."

David Edwards, 33, an assistant general manager of a restaurant who was walking his dogs just north of Cold Spring Lane, is among those willing to give Dixon a break this time.

"I think politicians are human," he said. "They're allowed to make a mistake."

Retired attorney Steve Rand believes Dixon should remain mayor through the legal process, saying she "has learned her lesson, big time. ... You can't use gift cards for your own purposes, no matter how much of a shopaholic you might be," said Rand, 67, who lives in downtown Baltimore.

The debate continues
The citywide conversation that began with Dixon's trial no doubt will continue as long as her tenure in office remains unresolved.

James Green has wrestled over the issue and believes she should step aside if her conviction is upheld - but he also would be willing to vote for her again.

"I believe in second chances for people," he said, standing in the back parking lot of a Sandtown-Winchester community center.

And yet, the 58-year-old day laborer, a single dad picking up his 5-year-old son, remains pained by Dixon's fall. "To have this opportunity and then squander it in scandal like that," he said, "doesn't make sense to me."

Then, there are those like Martha Dorman, a policy analyst for the state's child welfare agency, who view what has transpired as the final word on what they need to know about the mayor. No more trials or runs for office necessary.

"What she did is stealing," Dorman said. "I am a social worker who has spent 20 years working for poor families in the city of Baltimore. That she would take gift cards, as insignificant as that is, speaks volumes about her character."

The following Sun journalists conducted interviews and contributed to this project: Tricia Bishop, Liz Bowie, Kelly Brewington, Matthew Hay Brown, Joe Burris, Scott Calvert, Lauren Custer, Michelle Deal-Zimmerman, Justin Fenton, Mark Gross, Peter Hermann, Arthur Hirsch, Jamie Smith Hopkins | The Baltimore Sun, Brent Jones, Chris Kaltenbach, Liz F. Kay, Sarah Kickler Kelber, Nick Madigan, Jean Marbella, Jill Rosen, Frank D. Roylance, Julie Scharper, Gus Sentementes | The Baltimore Sun, Sam Sessa | The Baltimore Sun, Andrea K. Walker and Laura Vozzella.