Dixon's drive calls her to lead; 'Fighter' feels ready for City Council helm


Sheila Dixon can't stand for things to be out of order.

Not in her Hunting Ridge home, not in her office on Redwood Street. Nowhere.

So a few weeks ago when she saw some old mattresses and a chest of drawers blocking traffic on Edmondson Avenue, she whipped out her cellular telephone and called a city department she thought would quickly remove the trash.

The runaround she got only intensified her desire to put things in order in Baltimore, a city she has lived in all of her life. A city that she knows is, in some respects, out of order.

If Dixon, 45, successfully defeats Republican opponent Antonio Wade Campbell in the race for City Council president, she promises to help push through laws that might start putting Baltimore back in shape.

Dixon said she'd like to see the council and mayor address several areas, including the city's high crime rate, its shrinking population, drug addiction and the tens of thousands of abandoned houses and vacant lots that make parts of the city eyesores and attract drug dealers.

She knows the 19-member council faces numerous challenges, but says she's up to the task if elected to the $65,000-a-year president's post -- the only full-time City Council job.

"I think my track record over the past 12 years has demonstrated that I can lead the City Council into the next millennium," said Dixon, who was first elected to the council in 1987.

"I was born and raised in Baltimore. I know the pulse of Baltimore. I have been involved in many aspects of city government so I don't now have to go and learn the process. I can keep moving forward," Dixon said.

Dixon helped pass legislation banning advertising of alcohol and tobacco products in the city's neighborhoods. And she has worked diligently to improve schools and on issues affecting senior citizens.

Dixon, who met yesterday with 30 youth leaders from around the country at the city's Living Classrooms Maritime Institute, has been a strong supporter of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke since she took office, often being labeled a "rubber stamp" for his legislation.

She resents the label and said she and the mayor sometimes disagree but they communicate well. It's more productive, she says, "to talk it out, not hash it out."

Her opponent sees her relationship with Schmoke differently.

"Although she has had 12 years on the council, Mrs. Dixon hasn't really said anything about the problems that are facing our community," said Campbell, who teaches music at several private and religious schools. "Crime, drugs, education, economic development. She has basically voted for every idea that Kurt Schmoke had, and our city has paid for it."

Campbell said Dixon lacks the leadership skills Baltimore needs and doesn't know how to work well with others. "I think she's shown in the past that it's her way or the highway," he said.

Schmoke scoffs at that characterization, saying Dixon has "really grown and matured as a government official in the past decade."

He attributed part of her growth to her job as senior trade representative with the Maryland Department or Business and Economic Development, where she has worked for nearly 14 years.

If elected, Dixon said she plans to continue working for the state, at least part time. She would suffer too huge a pay cut if she quit outright, she said.

"She recognizes the importance of good government in creating a better economic climate in the community," Schmoke said. "And, I must say, as a wife and a mother, she is extremely sensitive to the needs of working families in this city. I think she's going to be an excellent council president, and I think she's a good listener and will implement ideas she gets from others as well as good ideas that are her own."

Former City Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham concurs.

"She has really learned, particularly from the mistakes" of former council presidents, Cunningham said. "You can't control everyone and everyone's thoughts and mold it to your agenda."

Dixon defends her ability to work with others. She said she has met with many City Council members and Democratic mayoral nominee Martin O'Malley.

"Sheila and I have voted differently on many issues, but we have always maintained a good relationship," O'Malley said. "I think both of us are anxious to get in there and create a new day."

O'Malley noted Dixon's "straightforward and direct" style, saying he likes it because a person always knows where she stands.

Dixon doesn't apologize for her bluntness, but said she could benefit from a different approach.

"I'm very passionate, and I'm very straightforward and sometimes people have a problem with that," she said. "It's not that I want to change that per se, but I think I can probably semantically work on some other words to use in expressing the same point."

What haunts her most, she said, is a memorable gesture during a City Council debate on redistricting in March 1991. Dixon removed one of her shoes, waved it at white colleagues and said: "Now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it."

Dixon said the gesture was a retort to a white colleague who had uttered a racial epithet, but the incident led to her being branded a racist. She recently said she's more hurt than angered by people who labeled her a racist after the shoe incident. She just wants people to judge her by her record.

"It probably will never be wiped off the slate," Dixon said of the incident, but more important is that she has gained acceptance, especially among people in Hampden who during her early council days "made it blatantly clear they didn't want my representation."

Dixon, a petite, bespectacled woman, grew up in West Baltimore, graduating from Northwestern High School in 1972.

Her father, Phillip Dixon Sr., was a salesman who died five years ago from prostate cancer. Her mother, Winona Dixon, a parent liaison in the Baltimore City Schools for more than 30 years, died suddenly a year ago. For Dixon, who had already lost her brother and sister-in-law, Phillip Dixon Jr. and Juanita Dixon, to AIDS, her mother's death was devastating.

'A fighter'

But it never occurred to Dixon to drop out of the political limelight, according to her longtime best friend, Velma Jeffers.

"She's a fighter. I know that's been tough," said Jeffers, who met Dixon when the two attended Garrison Elementary School. "I just think that there's a fighting piece of her that's not going to let her be taken down, that's not going to let her stop."

Cunningham, her former council colleague, said one reason Dixon is an effective city leader is she "truly loves Baltimore."

Yet as a child, she never dreamed of going into politics. She wanted to be an educator, "because I had a first-grade teacher who said I wasn't going to be anything."

After graduating in 1976 from what was then Towson State University with a bachelor's degree in early childhood education, and child development, Dixon taught from 1978 to 1984 in alternative education, assisting youths and adults who were trying to obtain their GEDs. She later taught kindergarten at Stuart Hill Elementary School for four years.

While working in alternative education, Dixon earned a master's degree in education and management from the Johns Hopkins University in 1982.

In the late 1970s, she had begun dabbling in politics by working on the campaigns of would-be officeholders. In 1986, she ran successfully for the Democratic State Central Committee's 40th legislative district, which covers West Baltimore.

The next year, she was elected to the City Council from the 4th District in West Baltimore and has since been twice re-elected.

Dixon is heavily favored to win the council presidency Nov. 2, which would make her the city's No. 2 officeholder and the first black woman to hold the post.

Although politics has been a big part of Dixon's life, there's much more to her than that.

She is a second-degree black belt in karate. Among her hobbies are traveling, photography and listening to music. As Dixon works in her spacious office in Redwood Towers, it's not uncommon for her to pop in a Frankie Beverly & Maze or Phil Perry compact disc. She's a member of the Downtown Athletic Club and is serious about lifting weights, doing aerobics and playing racquetball.

She loves to travel and has been to at least 20 countries, including France, Britain, Nigeria and South Africa. She once considered a career as a television camerawoman or a newspaper photographer, but acknowledges she thought of photojournalism primarily as a way to meet entertainers.

Dixon's 10-year-old daughter, Imani (Swahili for Faith) has been in a dance program since age 3 at the Deve's Christian School of Ballet and Tap in Randallstown. In 1995, Dixon and some other parents of dancers got together and formed the Moms Jazz Ensemble.

"I danced at the Morris Mechanic, and I danced at Carnegie Hall a year and a half ago with Moms," she said.

As active as Dixon is, she makes time for her family, which includes her husband, Thomas Hampton, a lobbyist for the Mass Transit Administration, and their 4-year-old son, Joshua.

Jeffers, her best friend, said that no matter how far Dixon's political career takes her, what means most to her are her personal accomplishments.

Faith is important

"I think there are some very personal things that she has been blessed with, and she recognizes it as a blessing from God," said Jeffers, who owns a consulting firm and lives in Boston. "The job couldn't have given them to her. The position couldn't have done it. Money couldn't have done it."

Dixon, who is a member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said her relationship with God has helped her keep her responsibilities in perspective.

"I try to seek and look to God," she said. "I prayed on [deciding on] running for the presidency of City Council, and it's the same thing I did 12 years ago when I was running for council. It helps me stay focused in my values and morals and how I relate to people and issues."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad