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Dixon learning new ropes as City Council president


Though Sheila Dixon won high marks this year for energizing the City Council and trying to win respect for a political body that at best plays a supporting role, the council president could not step out of Mayor Martin O'Malley's shadow.

While the mayor garnered rave reviews as a rising political star, Dixon was chastised for being too accommodating. In a year when he seemed to grab all the good headlines, her headlines were for the questionable ethics of working two government jobs. To cut the stress, she pumped up her exercise regimen.

"I asked for it when I asked to be president of the City Council," Dixon said of her increased profile.

Since winning election last fall, the 13-year council veteran has had to become a leader and a student of compromise. She has had to look beyond the narrow confines of her old 4th District haunts in West Baltimore and consider the needs of the entire city. Last week, she named a 15-member commission to review the City Council's duties and the arguments for and against reducing the council's size.

Once best known for waving her shoe at a colleague in a racially charged debate, Dixon now has to reach out and forge alliances with old adversaries such as O'Malley, with whom she spent two terms on the council.

"For most of those eight years, we were on opposite sides of the issues," O'Malley said. "The nice thing about Sheila is that she's a very straightforward person. She doesn't mince words, and you pretty much know how she feels about an issue."

As the council prepares for its first full session with O'Malley beginning Sept. 25, Dixon faces the unique challenge of distinguishing herself without crippling the mayor's agenda or being seen as his rubber stamp. She also has to reorganize her office in the wake of her well-regarded chief of staff's resignation.

No longer does she drop hints about a possible mayoral run. William Donald Schaefer was the last council president to win the city's top job, and that was nearly 30 years ago.

"What I'm looking toward right now is doing the best job I can," said Dixon, who keeps a copy of the Leadership Bible on her desk.

Colleagues say Dixon, 45, has transformed the president's office. Instead of the "closed door," fortress-like atmosphere that prevailed during former Council President Lawrence A. Bell III's term, council members say, Dixon is accessible and readily shares information.

Bringing more energy

"It's refreshing," said East Baltimore Councilman John L. Cain, chairman of the Highways and Franchises subcommittee. "My last term in the council, that office didn't seem to do much. There was no energy over there."

This year the city's 19-member legislative body passed bills banning the sale of body armor and requiring that every child under age 2 be tested for lead poisoning. The council withheld $800,000 from three city agencies to force accountability and went on a retreat to learn how to work together.

"Those are things that if you look at the history of the council, they had not been done before," said Dixon, the first black woman to hold the office of council president.

Under Dixon, the council has toured the city and committee chairmen have had workshops on how to conduct hearings. There have been regular e-mails, in contrast to Bell's more tight-lipped tenure, when, according to West Baltimore Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., "you had to keep your ear to the ground."

Admirers talk about her ability to juggle a political career, a professional career and familial responsibilities. Dixon has two children. Those who work with her in City Hall say she is a stickler for detail.

"The one thing she hammers home, we know it so well we can recite it, is, 'The one thing that will get you through at the end of the day is detail, detail, detail,'" said Anthony W. McCarthy, who resigned last month as Dixon's chief of staff. "You'd better have your ducks in a row, or she's going to pull you up on it."

The most striking change, however, is the constant push for teamwork.

Dixon set the agenda early, inviting council members on a three-day retreat in January to Mount Washington. The retreat cost taxpayers about $5,000. There were briefings by department heads, personality tests and a "team building" exercise taken from the pages of corporate America.

More than anything else, the retreat exemplified Dixon's desire to get a historically disparate group of elected city officials to work together. That's no easy task.

"It's like herding cats," said former Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Dixon might have been at her best so far during the bruising confirmation hearings for Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. In the end, the council gave Norris its unanimous support and Dixon won assurances that his contract would be reviewed in two years.

Though calls and e-mails to her office overwhelmingly supported Norris, public debate was heated and bitter. Arguments often fractured along racial lines. She had to balance her own concerns over "zero-tolerance" policing and its implementation against concerns about the terrible level of violence ripping apart sections of Baltimore.

"She helped council people get through that, whether it took an extra hearing or a resolution," said Northwest Baltimore Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. "She took the risk. She gave everybody a chance to participate."

Dixon was no different in running the council. She handed out committee chairmanships and plum assignments to friends and former foes.

Mitchell said he "was pretty upset" early on when he was named to head the Taxation Committee, formerly the Taxation and Finance Committee.

"I was the only one in my district who supported her," he said. "That has to be worth something. I don't know if it's half a committee."

But Mitchell, who has come to appreciate the assignment, said he holds no grudge.

"That was just the nature of politics," he said of Dixon's decision.

Old foes, new alliances

In Cain, Dixon found an unlikely ally. Their interest in the city's lead poisoning problem helped produce bills to protect the city's families and children. Cain took the lead on working with the mayor's office in crafting the legislation for the Baltimore City Parking Authority. His close work with Dixon was a change from years past.

"My perception of Sheila in the eight years that I worked with her on the council was that she was strident in terms of her advocacy on her narrow issues," said Cain, who did not support Dixon's run for council president. "Now, she has a different perspective because she is the president. She's had to have a larger perspective."

Being president also has placed her under greater scrutiny. Questions about the ethics of working full-time for the council and part-time for the state Department of Business and Economic Development put her on the defensive.

She went on a local talk show to discuss her agenda, but ended up taking call after call from concerned Baltimoreans who could not understand her keeping two jobs that pay her a combined $109,000 a year; $80,000 for the council presidency and $29,000 for the state job.

A State Ethics Commission ruling that working both jobs presented a conflict of interest did not force her to quit, neither did the stinging criticism.

"Sheila tends to take those things in stride," McCarthy said. "She really does kind of let things go and move on."

She said she is still considering her options. Changes in her duties proposed by her state supervisors include prohibiting her from representing city-based companies.

When looking around the city, Dixon, who grew up in West Baltimore and graduated from Northwestern High School, sees huge but solvable problems. There are pockets of development and pockets of neglect. There is the age-old competition between downtown investment and improving city neighborhoods.

"When I look at the city, it's like a puzzle. There are pieces where a lot of thought has been put into it, and in other areas, it depresses me," she said. "Reservoir Hill is a prime example of an area that should be like Bolton Hill and Canton."

During the coming session she hopes to use her office to press for improvements in the city's public school system and call attention to the devastation HIV/AIDS is bringing to the African-American community. Blacks have accounted for 87 percent of the city's nearly 11,000 cases. The majority of those cases -- 62 percent -- were caused by injection drug use. Dixon lost a brother and sister-in-law to the virus.

The next few months will be crucial for Dixon as she tries to raise her profile in Baltimore's political world.

"Right now, she, like O'Malley, is having a honeymoon and it's going to be interesting to see whose will last longer," Mitchell said. "Right now the mayor is the darling of Baltimore City, and she's like the bridesmaid."

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