Differing views on Dixon's future

Mayor Sheila Dixon checks her watch when asked by the press where she was going next following her trial. Her lawyer Arnold Weiner looks on. Her reply was she was heading back to City Hall.
Mayor Sheila Dixon checks her watch when asked by the press where she was going next following her trial. Her lawyer Arnold Weiner looks on. Her reply was she was heading back to City Hall. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna)
Despite widespread perception that Sheila Dixon has done a laudable job as Baltimore's mayor, she faces a challenge in trying to maintain a political career while carrying the burden of a criminal conviction, political observers say.

Many of the city's elected officials were noncommittal about Dixon's future, issuing mild statements Tuesday emphasizing how sorry the situation was. But others said Dixon might soon find that public opinion has turned against her more sharply than when she was indicted in January.

"If this doesn't get overturned on appeal, [Dixon's] political career has suffered a very serious, if not fatal blow," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, noting that most convicted Maryland politicians haven't been able to return to public office.

Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a former state legislator who hosts a radio show on WBAL, said the time has come for Dixon to relinquish the office she has held since 2007.

"At this point, the mayor needs to step down. She's been found guilty by a jury," said Mitchell, adding that the Democratic mayor was shunned in some quarters before the verdict and "doesn't get invited to the White House."

Dixon was found guilty Tuesday of embezzling gift cards that she solicited from a city developer for charitable purposes and spent herself. The Maryland Constitution calls for public officials to be suspended from office after a criminal conviction, and an attorney general's opinion says that the pending sentencing would trigger that requirement.

Dixon could appeal the verdict and challenge whether she should step down. Her lawyers said they are weighing options.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Dixon should communicate with the public in a frank and open manner about the ordeal she has put the city through.

"She should apologize, even though she should maintain her position that as a legal matter, she did nothing criminally wrong," said Schmoke, dean of the Howard University School of Law in Washington. "Her appeal is as much to the court of public opinion as it is to the criminal courts of our state.

"She needs to do something that is more than issuing a statement saying, 'We will continue on.' The time requires more of her," Schmoke said. "It's in her hands to do that. If she doesn't, I think there will be more sentiment building that she should step aside."

Former Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who has been discussed as a future mayoral candidate, said that Dixon "should quickly offer an apology to the community.

"She's got to go public as soon as possible. She owes an answer to the people of Baltimore. And in general, politics in Baltimore has got to become more transparent," Mfume said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a statement that "there are no winners in this case."

"I feel for all of those touched by this incident, including the dedicated city employees and residents in Baltimore, who suffered because of it," he said.

Dixon's predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, released a statement calling the event "a sad day for the people of Baltimore and Mayor Dixon personally."

Several Baltimore politicians said the legal process should run its course. They said they do not want to put pressure on the mayor as she makes a personal decision on whether to step down.

"There's a legal process in place, and that probably needs to play out," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat. "She is a skilled individual, and I would certainly hope the best for her because I really don't know at this juncture what the future might hold."

But Mitchell said Dixon began to lose the support of his listeners on WBAL radio when she admitted to taking the gift cards she was charged with misappropriating. Mitchell said people in the barbershops and beauty salons didn't buy her defense that she mistakenly thought they were gifts that a boyfriend had intended for her.

"I don't know of any boyfriend who gives his girlfriend 60 gift cards in denominations of $10, $15, $25," he said.

Some political observers said Dixon could run for office in the future even if she's removed from her current seat.

"She has made a big mistake, and some people are forgiving and some aren't," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat. "She's basically a good person who was doing a great job as mayor, and there are a lot of folks who won't forget that and would vote for her again."

Maryland history is abundant with examples of politicians falling from grace and trying to come back, including Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was convicted on mail fraud charges in 1977 before an appeals court overturned the ruling. He restarted his career as a lawyer and in 2003 was appointed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents.

Walter S. Orlinsky, then president of the Baltimore City Council, saw his political career come to an end in 1982 after he pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe from a sludge-hauling firm. He later received an appointment to a state job overseeing tree-planting efforts.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jill Rosen contributed to this article.