Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has said little about the theft charges leveled against her nearly a year ago. But with her trial under way, the silent void is being filled by backers offering personal and political support.
Dixon's family members streamed into the downtown courtroom last week for opening statements and the testimony of the first witnesses. So did members of Maryland Minority Contractors Association Inc., who took time off from running landscaping, demolition and construction firms to watch the proceedings. The group has even printed bumper stickers that read "Save our Sisters" - a reference to the mayor and a city councilwoman indicted in a separate City Hall corruption case.
Neighborhood groups and charity events continue to invite Dixon to speak. Her schedule has her appearing at a charity football game this afternoon and a fraternity dinner tonight.
Other support is further from public view. Her pastor is encouraging prayers. Dixon's political consultant distributed a blast e-mail recently urging the mayor's fans to write positive postings about her on Internet message boards, reminding them they didn't have to use their real names.
That Dixon remains in good graces with groups across the city reflects her attention to basic services and efficient government, her allies say. It also illustrates the political strength of a big-city mayor: If she is cleared of criminal charges, most observers predict her career will continue for years, overseeing construction projects, spending and determining which roads are paved and which alleys are cleaned.
Community organizations aren't shying away from the city's embattled chief executive. Federal Hill's community association president Paul Robinson said he was thrilled that Dixon is planning to appear at his neighborhood meeting Tuesday - once court recesses for the day. "It's incredible," he said. "I admire the heck out of her."
Dixon faces seven charges related to allegedly spending about 60 gift cards worth roughly $1,500 on herself; prosecutors say the cards were intended for needy Baltimore families. The mayor's defense attorneys contend that Dixon believed the gift cards - donated by her former boyfriend, Ronald H. Lipscomb and another developer, Patrick Turner - were presents for her to spend as she wished.
Kinji Scott, president of Citizens for Washington Hill in East Baltimore, said he didn't vote for Dixon in the 2007 mayoral primary election, choosing Andre Bundley instead. But he said her work with neighborhood groups has won him over.
"I support her 100 percent," he said. "She is an excellent mayor."
On the eve of the trial, Scott distributed an e-mail to others in Washington Hill that reads like a pre-game pep talk.
"As ... community leaders who are actively involved in the day to day process of making sure community needs are [met], we see firsthand the commitment Mayor has to this city," he wrote. "There is no jury in the Baltimore city that will find Mayor Dixon guilty. She will be found not guilty and she will become stronger because of it."
The biggest organized push appears to come from the minority contracting group, which has supported Dixon for years. The association sent e-mail messages asking members to rotate attendance at court proceedings, according to several members. Dixon has promoted the group's goals of expanding participation of businesses owned by African Americans and women in city contracts; members said they attended to thank her for her help.
Randolph Phipps, who owns Phipps Construction Contractors Inc., a minority-owned firm that regularly vies for city contracts, was in the courtroom because he has known Dixon "for ages." He said it is "worth it" for him to take a week away from his small business.
He and other members of the group fanned out and spoke to reporters during breaks in the court proceedings last week and hit on the same talking points: The investigation is focused on a charge too petty to pursue, they said, raising the prospect that the allegations are racially or politically motivated. Dixon, a Democrat, has been investigated for years by State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, a white Republican.
"Why are you pursuing her for $1,500?" asked Shirley Thompson, executive director of the contractors association. "I don't think [the charges] are true. But if you look at history they never hit other mayors this hard. My bottom line is 'Why?' "
Pless Jones, president of the association and head of P&J; Contracting, which also competes for city contracts, brought several employees to court. After Dixon was indicted in January, he printed and distributed about 500 bumper stickers bearing the slogan "Save Our Sisters" to show support for Dixon and City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who is accused of exceeding campaign finance limits. He has hung a sign with the same slogan on a fence on his property.
Jones said that, if asked, he would help raise money to defray Dixon's legal costs. "We will do whatever legally we can do to help her," he said.
Dixon has refused to answer questions about how she will pay her legal bills, which could reach $250,000 or more, according to some estimates.
Outside the courtroom, efforts are under way to counter critical articles and columns about the mayor. Rachel Rice, Dixon's campaign consultant, said she distributed an e-mail to "a couple hundred" of the mayor's closest supporters asking them to post positive comments on the Web site for The Baltimore Sun's editorial page.
"You do not need to identify yourself," Rice wrote. "But please do NOT use a work e-mail address if you work for the city or personal address if your identity is discernable [sic] and you work for the City."
She suggested supporters write that "Mayor Dixon works harder than any Mayor since Schaefer" and that they "have never seen the city in better hands."
Dixon's campaign-maintained Facebook page, which has 2,132 friends, contains a note posted last week saying that Dixon "continued to appear upbeat and focused in the courtroom."
She also draws support from her faith. In April, her office invited pastors from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance to pray for her at a breakfast held at Forum Caterers in Northwest Baltimore.
During his testimony last week, Dixon's boyfriend, Edward Anthony, noted they pray together over the phone every night before bed.
The mayor attended Sunday morning services at Bethel AME church the day before her trial began, sitting in the second row with her son and sister.
The Rev. Frank Reid III, Bethel's pastor, said he asked members to pray for her and asked them to refrain from "doing a lot of talking" publicly about the legal process during the trial.
"The mayor is going through hard times," Reid said in an interview Friday. "We live in a culture where people are quick to judge based on allegations."
He said that he has sent her scriptures and "words for the day" including some Psalms and words from Jesus' last seven statements on the cross.
Reid gave two examples: Luke 23:34, which says "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Also he mentioned Luke 23:43 - the words Jesus is said to have told the others who died next to him: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.