Baltimore City

In the background of Baltimore mayor's race: Sheila Dixon

When City Councilman Carl Stokes was considering whether to pull out of the mayor's race, he sought the guidance of family members, supporters — and Sheila Dixon.

Stokes, who announced on filing day last week that he was dropping out of the Democratic primary to improve the odds that incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would be defeated, chatted at length with the former mayor before making his decision.

While Dixon is barred from running for office this year as part of the plea deal to settle charges of theft and perjury, her influence pervades the mayoral contest.

She is in regular contact with Rawlings-Blake's three leading challengers: former city planning director Otis Rolley, state Sen. Catherine Pugh and Realtor and former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers. And she speaks frequently with Stokes, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other candidates in the September Democratic primary elections.

Dixon, who resigned last year as part of the plea deal, says she might run again for mayor four years from now. In the meantime, she's providing advice to campaigns at all levels, with a particular focus on those looking to unseat Rawlings-Blake, her former close friend and political ally.

"I don't think Stephanie has shown great leadership," Dixon said. "I don't see any real vision coming from her. I don't expect her to be like me in terms of dealing with all kinds of people and being a touchy-feely kind of mayor, but she doesn't come off as caring."

Campaign and City Hall aides declined to make Rawlings-Blake available to respond to these comments this week.

"Stephanie's accomplishments show that she cares about the city of Baltimore," campaign spokeswoman Keiana Page said. "She doesn't have a plastered smile, but she's serious about her job. Serious people look serious most of the time."

Page added, "From day one, Stephanie has been saying she has a vision for Baltimore, that it's a place with safer streets, stronger neighbors and better schools and more jobs, and I don't think you could have a stronger vision than that. If she didn't have vision, I think our city would be in a lot worse shape than it is."

Relations between Dixon and Rawlings-Blake have shifted dramatically from four years ago, when the women exchanged endorsements and campaigned together.

The pair clasped hands on stage (and were cheered on by Pugh) at a Druid Hill Park event celebrating women in politics, and Dixon shared campaign funds and workers with Rawlings-Blake.

The assistance helped Rawlings-Blake edge out Michael Sarbanes in the closely contested Democratic primary for council president, which put her in position to become mayor when Dixon resigned.

Dixon says she hasn't decided which of Rawlings-Blake's challengers to back, or if she will even make an endorsement. But she is dispensing advice behind the scenes, sharing the knowledge of the city's political landscape that she developed in 20 years on the City Council and another two as mayor.

Dixon chats regularly with Rolley, shared a stage — and exchanged compliments — last week with Landers, and sees Pugh at Bethel A.M.E. Church.

"I don't think there's a person in this race who, if she picked up the phone and called, wouldn't want to take her call," Pugh said. "There are a lot of things that Dixon did that I'm supportive of."

Rolley, who served as Dixon's chief of staff during her first year as mayor, has sought her guidance.

"Despite what happened, she has won a number of citywide races and is particularly gifted at campaigning," he said. "She still has a very strong base in this city."

Landers, whom Dixon appointed to chair a task force to lower property taxes, says he, too, has sought her advice.

"From my perspective, she was moving the city forward in the right direction on some of these issues," he said. "If we had continued to make progress on those issues, I probably wouldn't be in this race."

Landers, who stepped down as vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors recently to focus on his campaign, says Dixon is still popular.

"When I'm out there campaigning, for the most part people say they respect the job Sheila was doing," he said. He acknowledged that some are "bitter" or "disappointed" by her actions.

Observers say Dixon's depth of knowledge makes her a powerful ally. Some say voters might be willing to forgive Dixon's ethical lapses.

"She can rebuild herself as a consigliore," said Lester Spence, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "There are still a number of people who really like her, who think she made a mistake, but it was a minor mistake."

Spence pointed to Marion Barry, who was re-elected mayor of Washington even after he served six months in federal prison on drug charges. He currently serves on the City Council there.

Dixon was found guilty in late 2009 of stealing about $500 in gift cards given to her by a developer who said they were intended for the needy. She agreed in January 2010 to resign from office, donate $45,000 to charity and complete 500 hours of community service to settle both the theft charge and a separate perjury charge.

Under the plea deal, her record is to be wiped clean at the end of a two-year probation. The settlement allowed her to keep her $83,000 annual pension.

Spence said he expects many Baltimoreans, particularly African-Americans who took pride in Dixon's role as the city's first black female mayor, to forgive her transgressions.

"Given what she was found guilty of, in five, six years she can be a legitimate candidate," he said.

But at her age — she's 57 — he added, she needs to make a comeback sooner rather than later.

"She's just pushing up against a point where it would be too late," he said. "If she wants to run in 2015, she needs to be involved now."

Donald Norris, chair of the public policy department at University of Maryland Baltimore County, questioned whether voters would give Dixon another chance.

"She was convicted of a crime, and that crime was stealing from the poorest of the poor," he said. "I just don't see how someone with that her in background can be re-elected to an office she was thrown out of."

Norris said candidates who sought Dixon's counsel were "tawdry." "It sends a message to voters… that they are interested in winning, more than ethics," he said.

Dixon says she is enjoying her life outside of politics. She has been working for the Maryland Minority Contractors Association and spending more time with her children, a son in high school and a daughter who recently graduated from college. To fulfill the community service requirement of her probation, she also has been volunteering with a mentoring group and a nonprofit that works with the homeless.

But she might not be finished with elective office.

"I definitely love public life, being a public servant," she said. "Even today, people come to me for help."

She says she has not yet decided whether she will run for mayor in 2015. But she says she would run even if an ally is in the mayor's office.

Rolley admits with a laugh that Dixon has warned him she could run against him in 2015 if he is elected.

"I've told her, 'It's my hope to be doing such a good job, that you feel that you don't have to.'"

Among Rawlings-Blake's challengers, Rolley has worked with Dixon most closely. After heading the planning department for four years under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, Rolley co-chaired Dixon's transition team when O'Malley was elected governor and she became mayor.

Rolley served as Dixon's chief of staff from January 2007, when she was sworn in as mayor, until a few weeks after she was returned to the office by voters in September of that year. He left to direct the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Rolley is quick to say that none of the charges involved in Dixon's plea deal stemmed from her time in the mayor's office, but rather from her tenure as council president. He says he witnessed no legal or ethical misdeeds on her part when he was her chief of staff.

But he says he found his role in the administration frustrating. He lacked a close personal relationship with Dixon, which he says limited his ability to communicate with her.

A chief of staff who is a close friend of the mayor can be more effective, Rolley said, because they do not hesitate to "scream and fight and curse each other out."

"I couldn't break through with some decisions being made in the way that I wanted to," he said.

Campaign aides to Rawlings-Blake have tried to play up his connection to Dixon — referring to him, for example, as her chief of staff in statements to the press.

Spence says the connection is unlikely to tarnish Rolley's image.

"I don't think she has negative coattails," he said. "The insinuation would be that Otis in particular is dirty, [but] Otis is really capable in defending himself. Nobody is going to buy that; it's disingenuous."

And Rawlings-Blake also had a close relationship with Dixon, once. Rawlings-Blake endorsed Dixon — and welcomed Dixon's endorsement — in 2007 after it had been publicized that the state prosecutor's office was investigating Dixon.

"We had a strong partnership and a strong working relationship at that point," Rawlings-Blake said in an interview last week. Now, she said, although the two have many mutual friends, they rarely interact.

"I barely have a chance to talk with my friends and family," Rawlings-Blake said.

Dixon's stamp remains on the city government that Rawlings-Blake inherited. It was Dixon who hired Fire Chief James S. Clack and Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III, and the police department's current crime-fighting strategy was devised during her tenure.

Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty, mayoral spokesman Ian Brennan and many other officials are holdovers from the Dixon administration.

Rawlings-Blake says it doesn't make sense to abandon policies or employees simply because they stem from the Dixon era.

"One of the first things I said when I came into the office is I wanted to build on what's working and fix what's broken," she said. "You don't have to recreate the wheel every four years."

As Dixon considers another run for mayor, she says there are many initiatives — from her "cleaning and greening" efforts, to the repaving of roads — to which she would like to return.

""There's a job I want to finish that I started," she said.