Sheila Dixon, a three-term West Baltimore councilwoman known for her tenacity and tell-it-like-it-is political style, took an overwhelming lead last night in early returns for president of the City Council in the Democratic primary.
With more than two-thirds of the city's precincts reporting, Dixon had 55 percent of the votes in a six-person field.
Former state Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr. had 21 percent, while Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway had garnered 17 percent. Three other candidates had a combined total of 8 percent.
The winner among the Democrats will face little-known Republican Antonio W. Campbell, who was unopposed in the GOP primary, in November's general election for the city's second-highest elected office. Historically, a win in the Democratic primary has been tantamount to victory in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 9-to-1.
The general election victor will succeed Lawrence A. Bell III, who opted to run for mayor after serving a single term as council president.
At a smattering of polling places yesterday around the city, several voters said they paid scant attention to the council president's race -- and had little passion for any of the candidates.
"Who's running? I forget," Mary Gaffney, 65, said after casting her vote at Hampden Elementary School in North Baltimore. Reminded of the candidates, Gaffney said she voted for Conaway but acknowledged, "I didn't know too much about any of them."
Frank Richardson, 48, a child psychologist, said he voted for Irby because of "one of the fliers I got" at the polling place, but added: "I wasn't really focused on that race."
Others were more positive about the candidates.
At Jerusalem Evangelical Church in Northeast Baltimore, Scott Marston, 31, said he voted for Dixon because "she has the best experience. You want someone in there who knows what they are doing."
At Johnston Square Elementary School in East Baltimore, Herbert Turner, 45, cast his vote for Irby. "I've known him for several years and he's a man of integrity and a man of character," Turner said.
Also in the running for the $65,000-a-year post were Kelly C. Brohawn, a real estate broker who ran a distant third in the 1995 mayoral race; David G. S. Greene, the City Wide Coalition candidate running on a ticket with mayoral hopeful A. Robert Kaufman, and former Baltimore Sheriff Shelton J. Stewart.
The council president presides over the city's 19-member legislative body as well as the Board of Estimates, the five-member panel that approves all major city expenditures.
Dixon, an international trade specialist with the state of Maryland who has represented the 4th District since 1987, was the only member of the council to seek the presidency in yesterday's primary.
That was a marked contrast from 1995, when four council members sought to succeed then-Council President Mary Pat Clarke. Clarke decided to forgo a chance for a third term and made an unsuccessful challenge to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Dixon, 45, a native Baltimorean and mother of two, is decades apart from her two key rivals. Irby, the executive director of the city's liquor board, is 67; Conaway, a former state delegate, is 66. During her 12-year-tenure, Dixon was one of the council's strongest Schmoke supporters and shepherded through landmark legislation that banned billboard advertising of alcohol and tobacco products in the city's neighborhoods.
In a memorable gesture during a council debate on redistricting that demonstrated her bluntness, Dixon removed one of her shoes, waved it at white colleagues and declared: "Now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it."
The gesture fostered an enduring image of Dixon as "Shoeless Sheila." And although Dixon said she made the comment in retort to a white colleague who had uttered a racial epithet, she acknowledged that the incident has dogged her for years and was brought up frequently by voters during this year's campaign.
"I was labeled as a racist as a result of that," she said. "I know that I'm not, but some people have that perception of me."
In the waning days of the campaign, Dixon had to apologize for a glossy brochure mailed to voters that indicated that NAACP President Kweisi Mfume had endorsed her candidacy after he said he had not.
Conaway and Irby had said during the campaign that their ages would be an advantage in the job because it meant that they would be too old to run for mayor when their term expired.
"The problem with the City Council presidents has been that from the day they were elected, they were running for mayor," Conaway said. "I don't have a desire to be mayor."
In seeking the council presidency, Conaway was attempting to build on the remarkable political comeback he made last year when he was an upset winner in a nine-person Democratic primary field for Clerk of Courts.
Conaway, a former state delegate, had been out of public office for 16 years, since losing his seat in the legislature after a scandal over the alleged misuse of $200,000 in insurance premiums. No charges were filed.
His wife, Mary Carter Conaway, is the city's Register of Wills and was a candidate for mayor in yesterday's primary. A son, Frank M. Conaway, was a candidate for a 4th District council seat.
Irby's run for the council president's seat marked his attempt at a political comeback.
The East Baltimore Democrat represented Baltimore's 2nd District for eight years before his election to the state Senate in 1982. After 12 years in office, he decided not to seek re-election, saying he was burned out by the job. Two years ago, he was appointed executive secretary of the scandal-ridden Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners, a state agency.
Sun staff writers Amy Oakes and Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 9/15/99