Dixon's pull in session critical

Delegates have criticized Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon (center), saying she has not communicated well with them. Dixon said she thinks she has done a good job. "They also need to take the initiative and reach out," she said.
Delegates have criticized Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon (center), saying she has not communicated well with them. Dixon said she thinks she has done a good job. "They also need to take the initiative and reach out," she said. (Baltimore Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett)
One after another, the Baltimore lawmakers spat complaints at Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Dels. Nathaniel T. Oaks and Ann Marie Doory said they couldn't believe the mayor hadn't shared a traffic study with them. Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr. said he was "irritated with the political rhetoric we're hearing."

Dixon raised her voice to match the legislators', trying to continue her presentation at a recent city delegation meeting in Annapolis. But a few moments later, the lawmakers bristled again as Dixon told them about plans to meet with a casino developer. Several delegates wondered aloud if they would be invited. An exasperated Oaks blurted out: "Is there anyone you're talking to?"

At a time when the city is vying for state dollars in a tough economy, Dixon, a Democrat in her third year as mayor, can ill afford strained relationships with policymakers in Annapolis. This year, there's a new potential complication: Dixon was charged last month with 12 counts of felony theft, fraud, perjury and misconduct in office. She has said she is innocent and vowed not to let the case interrupt the city's business.

This time of year, much of the city's business takes place in the state capital. Decisions by lawmakers will determine how much money Baltimore gets for schools, roads and social services for inmates and drug offenders. The city's mayor needs to be a part of the discussion.

On the surface, Dixon's indictment has had little impact on her Annapolis routine.

Though she skipped the ceremonial first day of the General Assembly less than a week after charges were filed, she has met with lawmakers most Monday evenings since then, continuing a tradition.

On several recent trips to the state capital, Dixon was greeted warmly by legislators, who smiled and nodded at "Madame Mayor."

"I think the world of her," said Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and Senate Finance Committee chairman, who greeted Dixon with a kiss before a private meeting one Monday evening. "She is a very decent and delightful woman. My attitude toward her will remain unchanged, unless something emerges to convince me otherwise."

But others, including several who watched the mayor's speech to the city delegation earlier this month, say they want Dixon to be more vocal and cooperative - especially when Baltimore could stand to lose $23 million in education money and other funding as the state snips away at its projected $2 billion deficit.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who ran against Dixon in the last mayoral primary election, said Dixon, a former city schoolteacher, was "noticeably absent when the issue came up about education cuts." Comparing Dixon to her predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, Carter said, "His style was much more aggressive with his interaction with us. He was not just present at meetings and hearings, but he stuck around afterward to talk to us."

Dixon said she was "very surprised" that some lawmakers thought she could be a better communicator. "I think we do a good job," she said. "They also need to take the initiative and reach out."

Most lawmakers say they will reserve judgment until Dixon has had her day in court, but there is an undercurrent of worry about how the mayor's legal predicament will play out during the session. Several city delegates said lawmakers from Republican-leaning rural areas who view Baltimore as a money pit for state resources might seize upon the issue.

Oaks, who said he supports Dixon, predicted it would lead to "greater scrutiny of all things Baltimore."

"Baltimore is a whipping post," he said, "and people here will use anything as a whip."

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, chairman of the city delegation and a Democrat, said that even minor legal requests, such as her proposal to change state law to allow the police commissioner to be fired without cause, could be contentious.

"Some might think it's not the best time to try to give her more power," he said. "The mayor is a notable figure right now, and I'm sure there are some who will try to take advantage of that."

Legislative leaders say they expect her indictment to have no impact on the state's aid to the city.

"I would hope that everyone would respond to her just as they would any other year," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat. "The city needs and deserves the best representation it can get."

While Annapolis is dominated by three major players - the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker - elected executives of large jurisdictions have always been important figures.

The mayor, and the executives of counties such as Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore, come to the capital with their own agendas and meet together to shape decisions. Past leaders, such as William Donald Schaefer, Parris N. Glendening and Douglas M. Duncan, have leveraged their Annapolis influence into gubernatorial bids.

Effectiveness in Annapolis depends on more than one person, however. In the three earlier legislative sessions during her tenure - including the hectic 2007 special session in which lawmakers asked Marylanders to vote on slots - Dixon, like most county executives, relied heavily on her aides. The city's main lobbyist is Diane Hutchins, a seasoned pro.

Demaune Millard, Dixon's legislative director in prior sessions and her current chief of staff, said the mayor has scored some big wins. And her greatest achievement, Millard said, was her lobbying on slots. Dixon persuaded lawmakers to allow the city to pick the casino site - city property, which enables them to ask for $36 million in annual rent.

That victory was tempered in recent weeks when the casino bidders were revealed. The city had only one bid, and the group is seeking so few slot machines that it could not open a financially viable casino.

Millard also pointed to the mayor's "land bank" legislation, which was part of her platform as a mayoral candidate. That new state law allows the city to buy vacant properties and usher in redevelopment.

"Her leadership in Annapolis has served the city well," Millard said.

Several lawmakers critical of Dixon's Annapolis style concede that she has improved over the years. During her first session as mayor, she did not meet with the city delegation. She is also trying new ways to forge relationships. After encountering a testy House Judiciary Committee last year, which was dismissive of most of the city's bills and critical of its crime fighting efforts, Dixon invited members to Baltimore between sessions. They toured prison re-entry programs and listened to work groups on crime.

That strategy might have paid off. When she testified last week about gun crime measures, tempers were calm, and delegates were respectful.

Even apart from Dixon, Baltimore has the ear of the most powerful lobbyist in the capital: the governor, Dixon's predecessor as mayor. "It's his city as well," Miller said, "and he loves it and cares about it."

This year, O'Malley is sponsoring a pair of Dixon's failed domestic violence bills. Her spokesman said she is "pleased" that O'Malley has taken up the legislation, which would confiscate guns from the subjects of protective orders.

O'Malley's aides say they work well with Dixon's aides, and Millard said the mayor has "a good and productive relationship" with the governor.

On the night before her scheduled arraignment in Baltimore Circuit Court earlier this month, Dixon whipped through Annapolis, hop-scotching from office to office for informal meetings with delegates and senators.

Between meetings, she breezed into a reception for the Maryland Jewish Community, where she was swamped like a rock star by young people seeking photographs with her. She posed for a few and then left: "Gotta keep moving," she said.

in annapolis
•The city receives $1.1 billion in direct aid from the state, more than any other subdivision and 20 percent of the state total.

•Mayor Sheila Dixon said a top goal is preserving state funding for city education and other programs.

•Dixon is backing two bills before the General Assembly. One would limit prison credits for criminals convicted of gun crimes; another would restrict bail for defendants with prior gun convictions.