All Baltimoreans who were here for her trial knew this day was coming — the day Sheila Gift Card would announce her intention to regain the office she dishonored. I'm guessing we split into three camps:
Never Again: These are the Baltimoreans who will never vote to return to the mayor's office a woman who stole gift cards intended for needy kids and who had a record of ethical lapses before that as City Council president. Many in this camp are willing to forgive but not forget, and they can't imagine voting to make mayor someone who was convicted of embezzlement. Doesn't matter that Sheila Dixon served out the conditions of her 2010 plea deal. Doesn't matter that the deal left her eligible to run for office again. The NA crowd believes in second chances, but not for mayors — especially one who took five years to utter an apology for violating her oath. (More on that later in this column.)
Maybe: This camp looks at their Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and the mess that followed and questions the present leadership in City Hall. Until recently, a lot of good things had been happening since the Sheila Gift Card embarrassment. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake cleaned up the town nicely (and literally, during a couple of blizzards in 2010) after her predecessor resigned. Rawlings-Blake served competently and enunciated some ambitions for the city that got people believing in the Next Baltimore. But her reputation has been scorched by April's unrest and the surge in violent crime that followed. Baltimoreans looking for a change might reconsider Dixon and feel they're practicing righteous forgiveness by giving her a second chance.
Bring Her Back: Some Baltimore Democrats were always loyal to Dixon and believed she was the victim of a witch hunt by a state prosecutor appointed by a Republican governor. They weren't convinced she was a crook, even after she pleaded guilty to stealing gift cards and acknowledged that the state had enough evidence to find her guilty of perjury. The case against Dixon was tawdry, but a lot of people refused to see it as a big deal. In fact, I distinctly heard more outrage about Dixon remaining eligible for her generous pension than about her violations of the law. Plenty of long-time Dixon fans will vote for her again; they always liked her street savvy and have never warmed to her replacement.
Of course, just how all this breaks down — which camp has the biggest number of voters — remains to be seen.
One thing seems certain: Voter interest in the 2016 Democratic primary — the only mayoral election that matters — is bound to be a lot more robust than the last two.
In 2011, voter turnout was pathetic. Rawlings-Blake won with 38,829 votes, a little more than half the votes cast that year. In the 2007 primary, only 86,125 Democrats voted, nearly two-thirds of them for Dixon, who finished with 54,381 votes.
But if you're handicapping this by more recent data — say, a church applause meter — you'd be inclined to give Dixon an edge.
She showed up at Gray's funeral on April 27 and received an ovation. On the first Sunday in May, she attended services at Bethel AME Church, with the Rev. Frank Reid III presiding in a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt. When Reid mentioned Rawlings-Blake, applause was tepid. When he acknowledged Dixon, it was loud and sustained.
Given where we are — after the riot and unrest, but still months away from the trials of police officers charged in Gray's death — it's impossible to predict the road ahead, or to even make a confident bet on the 2016 election. There are a lot of unknowns, including other candidates who might enter the field.
When this newspaper conducted a poll of Baltimore Democrats in 2011, as many voters said they had approved of Dixon's work as mayor as said they would not consider voting her back into office. One of the respondents to that survey was a woman named Mary Ross, identified as a former Dixon supporter. "She never really said she was sorry for anything," said Ross.
And that might be what hurts Dixon more than anything in her bid to return to City Hall. After her trial and resignation, she declined invitations to say she was sorry. In fact, it wasn't until last month, when she obviously had made up her mind to challenge Rawlings-Blake, that Dixon offered an apology. It came during an interview with Vic Carter of WJZ-TV.
Carter: "What do you say to the people of Baltimore right now?"
Dixon: "I think people in Baltimore want to hear my sincerity — that I am sorry for what happened. I'm apologizing about it."