Baltimore City

Inquiry threatens Dixon's momentum

Six months into her historic term as Baltimore's first female mayor, Sheila Dixon has been riding high - the homicide rate is at a two-decade low, the City Council passed her budget almost untouched, and she has won praise for her work on gun control and homelessness.

But yesterday a lingering, two-year state investigation into City Hall contracts that led to two guilty pleas by Dixon associates landed on her doorstep when prosecutors and police searched her West Baltimore home.

Political observers say Dixon may have a harder time maintaining momentum as the probe continues.

Others say the Democratic mayor is the victim of a prosecutor appointed by former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose anticipated rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley could benefit if a close ally of the Democratic governor is indicted.

"I would really be disappointed if something happened to change the good direction we are going in now," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat.

"I just hope that they finally resolve whatever it is they are investigating. I am sure that Mayor Dixon doesn't want to govern with a cloud over her head."

Despite the investigation, Dixon had shed the reputation she developed during her early years on the City Council as a divisive figure in Baltimore politics.

Since becoming mayor she has taken a more conciliatory tone with her opposition and has navigated through potential crises with a poised public persona that has helped her avoid major controversy.

Dixon has previously characterized the investigation as a politically motivated "witch hunt," and Democrats gave indications yesterday that they will portray it as politically motivated.

But how it will ultimately be interpreted by the public will likely depend on whether State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh brings a case against her.

"It all depends on the outcome," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"Even if she's indicted and not convicted, it will not bode well. It will be bad for her and for her chances of re-election."

But, Norris said, "Strange things can happen."

He pointed to former Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.'s political comebacks despite multiple legal troubles. Others have pointed to Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has been indicted and is still governing his city.

And if the case here fizzles, Dixon's political standing could be strengthened for having weathered the scrutiny, observers say.

In 2003, a federal investigation of City Hall that included subpoenas of all City Council members, including Dixon's travel records, ended without any charges.

Dixon went on in 2004 to fend off a serious challenge to her council presidency. She easily won the Democratic primary and the general election for mayor last year.

Since then, however, the state investigation has led to guilty pleas on tax-related charges by two city contractors: Dale G. Clark, Dixon's friend and former campaign chairman; and Mildred E. Boyer, whose company, Utech, employed Dixon's sister, Janice.

Matthew Crenson, a retired professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said that an indictment would "damage her credibility and effectiveness as mayor."

He said Dixon's good work has won over many people who didn't vote for her in November.

Voters did not worry about her association with Clark and Boyer during the election because she was never tied directly to them, he said.

Kilpatrick's indictment for perjury is clear and easily understood, Crenson said, but, "in Dixon's case, we don't know exactly what they're going after."

And that is what has some of her supporters enraged.

Anderson, the delegate, said the fact that two contractors were indicted after The Sun revealed their affiliations with Dixon in 2006 does not mean she is involved in any illegal or unethical activities.

Anderson said he thinks that the investigation is unfounded and that a double standard may be at work because of Dixon's race and sex.

"If it were William Donald Schaefer or Martin O'Malley, we wouldn't be dealing with any of this stuff," he said.

"The investigation they have alleged amounts to nothing more than what mayors in the past have done with regard to getting people hired.

"Baltimore City had been a patronage capital for many, many years. All of a sudden, this is a major story, this is something you want to indict someone for?"

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Democrat who challenged Dixon for re-election last year, said she does not think the investigation will hinder the mayor's ability to govern.

"She's managed to win an election under the cloud," Carter said. "I think as long as she is able to hold up under the pressure - and she has shown pretty much that she has been able to do so - she will be able to."

Still, with the Dixon probe and a continuing FBI investigation of state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat, Carter said she worries about an eroding public confidence in elected officials.

"This doesn't appear to be the finest hour for the state of elected officials at the moment," she said.

Republicans are poised to capitalize on that perception.

"It just shows that more and more of this one-party rule is disturbing to all Marylanders," said Jim Pelura, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

"If Mayor Dixon is abusing her position as mayor for the personal gain of her family members, that's terrible."

He said Dixon has been able to escape political consequences from her association with the convicted contractors.

But, he said, "if this results in indictment and conviction, then maybe she won't be able to stay above it again."