Dixon talks of trial, legacy

On the eve of a court hearing that might represent her best chance of remaining in office, a reflective Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said the prospect of stepping down is "not the best feeling" and that she regrets an affair with a developer that she believes led to her legal troubles.

Dixon gave a lengthy, if impromptu, interview Monday evening to The Baltimore Sun, making her first extended public remarks about her trial since a jury convicted her last month of embezzling gift cards intended for the needy. She was alternately rueful and pensive as she spoke about her tenure as a public servant but declined to answer specific questions about the conviction or a coming second trial on perjury charges.

Still, she gave a hint of her thoughts on the criminal cases, particularly as they involved Ronald H. Lipscomb, the developer who was expected to be the state prosecutor's star witness against her but never took the stand.

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"The bad choice I made was getting in a relationship with Ron Lipscomb," said Dixon, who dated Lipscomb while she was president of the City Council and voted on a spending panel to award tax breaks to his projects.

"If he had testified," she said, "I would have testified."

At a hearing today, Dixon's attorneys will argue that the mayor deserves a new trial because of juror misconduct, coercive instructions from the trial judge and confusion they believe resulted from jurors' being instructed to ignore large chunks of testimony about Lipscomb.

If those arguments fail, Dixon is expected to be sentenced Jan. 21; the state constitution calls for convicted officials to be removed from office after sentencing, though some additional legal maneuvers might remain. Some city leaders have said privately that they will press the mayor to begin a formal transition of power to her successor, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, if the new trial is not granted. The judge could rule as early as today.

As the prospect of being forced from office draws closer, Dixon said she thinks "about it more now than before.

"It is not the best feeling," she said. "It is a little disappointing." The mayor stands to lose her roughly $83,000-a-year city pension.

Dixon called a Sun reporter Monday evening, concerned about a planned article about recent events on her public schedule the she's skipped. She ended up speaking for about an hour, in general terms about the trial but more extensively about her legacy and how it might be misconstrued because of her legal problems. For the first time, Dixon publicly addressed the issues that initially prompted state prosecutors to investigate her.

At a February 2006 City Council hearing, she had pressed Comcast to hire more minority-owned firms, naming among others Utech, a company for which her sister was working at the time. Dixon said she had no idea that her sister was working at Utech, because she knew the company by another name, Union Technologies. "It was an oversight that I didn't register this company as the one she worked for," Dixon said.

In March 2006, The Sun reported that Dixon steered $600,000 of City Hall computer work to her former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, much of it without a contract. She disputed the reports, saying she inherited the problem of how to pay for computer network improvements, something that had not been handled by the council president's office.

Ultimately, she said, she regrets being involved. "We should have said we are not taking over the computer contract until it was straightened out," she said.

Dixon expressed irritation at what she views as a media-driven and inaccurate narrative of her tenure in office.

"That I'm a corrupt human being, because I'm not," she said. "That I use my office for my personal gain, and I don't. That I'm a person that used these positions for myself, and I don't."

Dixon said she hasn't focused as much on the political aspects of her job.

"Everybody - most people, except me - have advisers," Dixon said. "That is the problem I have. I look at it as being a public servant rather than a political office. I don't have those. I didn't have them."

She acknowledged that her legal troubles might have contributed to problems attracting qualified people to serve in key roles; there are openings for the top jobs at the Health Department, Recreation and Parks, and the Aging Commission. "We have challenges with trying to replace some folks," she said.

But she said she did not believe her conviction has lowered city workers' morale or that it would cause an exodus of talented staff. "If that is the case they would have done it a while ago," Dixon said.

Asked if her appearances at various police-related events were awkward given that she's been convicted of a crime, she said "I don't look at it like that." Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the city's police commissioner, who serves at her pleasure, has "been very supportive," she said. "He loves what he does. That is what he's focused on."

Dixon said that the most trying experience since the conviction was the annual Mayor's Christmas Parade in Hampden where onlookers, some intoxicated, booed as she rode past in a red convertible.

"The Hampden one was a little tough," Dixon said. "I've done a lot in Hampden. That was probably the hardest." And in fact, one evening during the trial, members of the neighborhood feted the mayor, dancing with her at an event to celebrate a deal she helped forge that returned a giant pink flamingo to Cafe Hon's exterior.

Dixon said that her faith sustained her during her long days in court.

"Every tribulation, every challenge I grow from," Dixon said. "Every struggle I grow from." She's found strength in her son's reaction to her case. "The boy's spirit is so deep, and it kept me so strong from the foundation."

During the interview, she delved into other hot-button incidents that have dogged her career, including an infamous scene of her waving a shoe at white colleagues during a March 1991 council meeting when a new plan to create more council districts with a majority of black residents was approved.

"You've been running things for the last 20 years - now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it," Dixon said at the meeting, according to a Sun article from that time.

The mayor said this week that her outburst was prompted by unreported comments that she considered racist by another councilman, but that she now regrets the way she responded.

"The incident, it wasn't good," Dixon said. "You grow from it." She joked that waving the shoe was the better alternative than her initial instinct: smacking the offending council member on the head.

Since becoming mayor, she said, she's had more of a chance to showcase her strengths: listening closely, putting in long hours and making difficult decisions. It's a job that she said she "likes and enjoys" - and one that she obviously hopes to keep.

"We have a potential of really making a big change in this city," Dixon said, from developing programs for impoverished mothers to improving garbage management.

Dixon said a friend recently complained to her that the recycling canisters at the Sisson Street drop-off location are all full.

"I tell them that is a good thing. People are recycling," Dixon said.

"In the last two years, going on three years," she said, "I think we have made some real strides."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.