The City Council members juggled plates of macaroni and cheese and fried fish with notes on bills to be presented at their meeting that evening. But the focus of Monday's council luncheon was not the proposed hearing on leaf blowers or more beds for an old age home. One by one, the legislators stood up to thank their hostess, Mayor Sheila Dixon.
They recalled the day she rushed to a council meeting just after giving birth to her daughter and the time she signed a bill on a card table in an alley. They praised her recycling initiatives and they expressed gratitude for the times she had visited sick relatives or given money to friends in hard times.
"Just as a mother of five makes each child feel like they're her favorite, you've made us all feel like your favorites," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. "For these three years you've had 14 children and each one of us thinks you like us the best."
Monday was the last time Dixon will host the biweekly mayor's luncheon for the council members. Her resignation, part of a plea deal in her criminal trial for embezzlement and perjury, takes effect Thursday. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake will be sworn in as mayor the same day.
It was one of the few public occasions marking Dixon's slow exit from City Hall, a sometimes awkward period during which she largely has been a lame duck and Rawlings-Blake increasingly was treated as mayor in all but name.
Since entering the plea agreement Jan. 6, Dixon has kept up a schedule of public appearances, albeit with smaller, community-based groups and nonprofits. She was not invited to the White House's Conference of Mayors and she was noticeably absent when President Barack Obama stopped by an East Baltimore factory last week.
Meanwhile at City Hall, the past few weeks have been chaotic for the mayor's staff as they have had to prepare transition reports for the incoming administration even as they had no idea if they would be a part of it.
Many members of the Dixon administration only learned Monday whether they would have a position with Rawlings-Blake's shop - some were told they would stay for the next two weeks; others were told that they would be out of a job immediately on Thursday. It has not been announced which of the top officials would remain.
Still, Dixon has stayed upbeat, trading jokes with council members at the lunch.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said, then paused. "Unless you increase my taxes."
She thanked the council members and her staff. And she exhorted the council to prioritize people over politics.
"The neighborhoods and communities are most important ... that's what makes Baltimore so unique," she said. "Do not think about the politics of an election, but do it for the benefit of the long-term good."
The council members took turns thanking her for her support.
"I introduced a lot of legislation when the governor was the mayor and it didn't go anywhere," Councilman James Kraft said. "The minute you came in, you grabbed it and championed it and you made it happen."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, elected to the council at the same time as Dixon, recalled the "unspoken things, the quiet things" Dixon did to help the residents of her district, such as chipping in to help save a minister's home from foreclosure. And, she noted, Dixon was the "first council member in the history of the City Council to give birth to a child."
Councilwoman Agnes Welch recalled Dixon being brought to a City Council meeting when she was breast-feeding her newborn daughter. "We needed a vote one night ... and we brought her down here, got her vote and then she had to go right back out," Welch said. "If that's not commitment, I don't know what is."
One councilman, Nicholas D'Adamo, choked up as he spoke about the mayor, who he said "is like a sister to me."
The incoming mayor Rawlings-Blake looked over notes and checked her BlackBerry while the council members offered homage to Dixon.
At the end of the luncheon, she offered a few brief and less personal words to Dixon.
"You've been a tremendous force in so many ways around the city," she said. "You've had a lot of good momentum and I know the people here who love you and love the city will take advantage of that good work and ultimately will thank you."