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Suddenly, Sheila Dixon is everywhere

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon is suddenly ubiquitous.

A week after launching a campaign to reclaim her old job at City Hall, the 61-year-old Democrat is turning up on television screens, radio talk shows and community events as she strives to draw a contrast between her and incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — particularly on the administration's handling of rising violence.

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Analysts say Dixon's approach is just smart politics.

"Baltimore City right now is suffering from an epidemic of homicides, said Todd Eberly, an associate political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Dixon is "basically saying, 'I am angry about it, and I am getting in the race.'

"This is an opportunity she can't let slip past."

Dixon has had sharply worded criticism for Rawlings-Blake's leadership, saying the response to recent rioting and a surging homicide rate shows "a lack of direction and vision." More people were killed in May — 42 — than in any month in 25 years.

"I am putting together a whole strategy," Dixon said. "I am going to get us back to community policing. We've got to build that trust again."

She said she's interviewing campaign managers, recruiting volunteers, gearing up to raise money and using social media to get the word out about her platform in next spring's Democratic primary. But in some sense, observers say, she's been campaigning for months.

The former mayor spoke at four commencement ceremonies in city schools this spring. She was a frequent presence at community meetings after the April riots and showed up to speak to neighborhood groups about the Red Line when the light rail project was rejected by Gov. Larry Hogan. She also has emceed events in Baltimore.

In other words, Dixon has stayed visible — and helpful to those who ask.

"She's been a real ally for the neighborhood," said Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association. While stressing he is not endorsing a candidate, Cross said Dixon has been a regular presence in the community in recent months, helping residents navigate City Hall bureaucracy.

"She's always been on top of it," he said.

Eberly said one of the first orders of business for Dixon will be to address the reason she left office in the first place: a 2009 embezzlement conviction for stealing gift cards intended for the poor.

"She has to say, 'I made personal mistakes, but when it comes to running this city, I did a good job,'" Eberly said.

Dixon is doing just that.

"I am asking the citizens of Baltimore to forgive me," Dixon said in an interview, eager to point out that she performed 500 hours of community service and donated $45,000 to charity as part of a plea agreement to settle another charge.

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"I made some bad choices," she said, adding: "I am not a thief. ... I know the kind of person I am and the difference I have been able to make for the city."

Dixon says she's running to offer residents a better city government that is more focused on quality-of-life issues, including safety, lower taxes and clean neighborhoods.

She elaborated on her criticism of onetime ally Rawlings-Blake in an op-ed she wrote for The Baltimore Sun. The piece, published online Friday and set to appear in Monday's print editions, argues that the city's recent spike in crime could have been prevented with better leadership.

David Kosak, finance director for Rawlings-Blake's campaign, responded to the criticism by saying the mayor is focused on moving Baltimore forward. Rawlings-Blake, 45, became mayor in February 2010 after Dixon resigned and won a full term in November 2011.

Kosak also pointed to the mayor's record of cutting property taxes, opening the city's first new recreation center in a decade and developing a $1 billion plan for new school construction.

"The unrest that happened in the city was a difficult and challenging time, and we're still working to move forward," he said. "We're reviewing and analyzing the events so we can learn and grow. That is something the mayor has always been focused on.

"She's confident the voters will respond to her vision."

And Dixon, Kosak said, "violated the public's trust" rather than using her time in office to build the city up.

"The only crisis Sheila Dixon had to deal with was a self-created crisis," he said.

Like Dixon, Rawlings-Blake is spending time in city neighborhoods to have "conversations and talk about her record and vision," Kosak said. She's scheduled a series called "Mondays with the Mayor" at city bars and pubs, but she won't begin more active campaigning until the fall, he said.

The Democratic primary is April 26. It is considered the de facto election in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore. Political observers aren't sure what to expect about turnout. Lawmakers moved the city's election cycle to align it with the presidential election.

A compelling presidential race — such as one involving the possibility of the first female Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton — could cause a spike in turnout that will make both voter mobilization and polling unpredictable.

"It's a clean-slate campaign in the sense that everybody is coming in with positives and negatives," said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. "The candidates have to come in prepared for a really tough race."

Rawlings-Blake has more than $365,000 in the bank compared to Dixon's $78,000, according to recent filings. Morrill speculated that each candidate will have to raise about $1.5 million.

In some city neighborhoods — especially parts of West Baltimore where Dixon was first elected to serve nearly 30 years ago — she is greeted enthusiastically.

Immediately after she parked her Lexus SUV at a block party in Druid Heights on Thursday night, a group of women and girls encircled her, calling out, "We want you back!"

Among them was 27-year-old Tyisha Fulton, who said Dixon helped her get food stamps at a time when her family was in need.

"Despite everything that happened before, I need the mayor back," Fulton said. "She really cared about the people of Baltimore."

Nathaniel Bland, 46, said Dixon helped him get a job years ago in the city's Public Works Department, and he'll most likely vote for her.

"Everybody deserves a second chance," said Bland, who is considering running for City Council. "I am excited about her making it a spirited race.

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"It's like Pepsi and Coke: You have a choice. It's a choice between two different leadership styles."

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