Council members weigh challenge to Dixon

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As guests nibbled on roasted baby peppers with shrimp and listened to a jazz guitarist during a political fund-raiser last week, talk swirled around whether as many as three members of the Baltimore City Council were plotting to unseat the council president.

The councilman holding the $100-per-person event, Kenneth N. Harris Sr., made no announcement about whether he would challenge President Sheila Dixon. But in one-on-one conversations with some of his 100 guests at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center, he said he was considering it.

"Different groups and individuals have talked to me about running, and I am exploring it," said Harris, 39, a first-term councilman, radio talk-show host and manager at Comcast Cable company.

"I'm a consensus builder, and I have a good understanding of how government operates, I have a good business background, and I have good grass-roots [neighborhood organizing] experience."

Council members Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Catherine E. Pugh, in separate interviews outside the reception, also said they're thinking about running, although Pugh sounds more tentative than Harris or Mitchell.

The question of who wins the next council president's race, in November of next year, is more important than just who bangs the gavel during weekly meetings.

The next president might also become the next mayor. The council president automatically ascends if the mayor leaves to run for higher office, as Martin O'Malley almost did last year when he considered running for governor, and which political observers say he might do again.

Former Council President Clarence H. Du Burns -- to whom Dixon compares herself -- became mayor in 1987 without an election when William Donald Schaefer left to become governor.

When asked if he will endorse Dixon, O'Malley responded by saying he has a good working relationship with Dixon, which he would like to see continue. He said their teamwork has allowed his crime-fighting initiatives to win council approval.

"There has been a more cooperative spirit in the city government in the last three years than we've seen a long time, and I think that the credit for a large part of our accomplishments has to be given to Council President Dixon and the leadership she has shown," said O'Malley.

The two form an unusual partnership. They have contrasting philosophies about fighting the city's drug problem and were on opposite sides of the fence during the 1990s, when Dixon was among Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's strongest supporters and O'Malley was his loudest critic.

But Dixon and O'Malley are both ambitious politicians who understand that they will get more accomplished if they work together, and so they frequently cooperate, according to council members.

That alliance has opened Dixon up to criticism that she is not independent from the mayor. This is unlike the last two council presidents, Lawrence A. Bell III and Mary Pat Clarke, who were often at odds with Schmoke.

"The public looks on the council as a rubber stamp for the mayor," said Mitchell, 35, a former teacher who has represented the west side of the city since 1995.

"Sometimes I'm frustrated now that the City Council seems irrelevant," Mitchell said. "Looking back, there are some issues where we could have shown more strength and initiative."

Mitchell was at Harris' political fund-raiser last week, along with another potential council president candidate, Pugh, 53, a public relations executive and co-organizer of the Baltimore Marathon and other civic events, who is in her first term representing the west side.

Pugh said some supporters have asked her to challenge Dixon, but she has made no decision. "Certainly I will consider it," said Pugh. "But it's not something I'm pursuing at this time."

Many wonder if Dixon -- a tenacious former three-term councilwoman elected president in 1999 -- is vulnerable.

Even some of her supporters say she has had a rough three years. She has been criticized for backing O'Malley in approving a generous $100,000 pension bonus for former police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, for brushing off a State Ethics Commission ruling about her dual employment, and for failing to show leadership on the question of whether to shrink the council.

The most significant event for the council during Dixon's term was a reform that she and almost all other council members bitterly opposed: a referendum in November that shrank the body from 19 to 15 members and created single-member districts.

The measure was pushed in part by union members who were angry at the council for approving the mayor's layoffs of city workers. At the last minute, the council drafted an alternative plan -- but the courts threw it off the ballot after ruling that Dixon organized an illegal closed-door meeting.

Harris, who in 1999 took O'Malley's former seat on the council, representing Northeast Baltimore, criticized Dixon and others for dropping the ball. "The council needed to move quickly and do something about downsizing, but we didn't pull it off," he said.

Dixon said she formed a commission to study shrinking the council, but that council members fought her efforts to create a consensus on eliminating council jobs.

"I [tried to rally the council] in as many ways I could try to do it," said Dixon. "But I got smacked in the face. 'Are you crazy?' people asked. 'Why would we even vote on the downsizing?' ... In hindsight, I should have just brought my own bill out and if it failed, it failed."

Dixon said she is independent from the mayor. She has come out more strongly against slot machines than O'Malley. And she has different ideas about drug enforcement than the mayor, who wants police to crack down on dealers.

"I don't think that locking people up is the answer, because we could be spending all that money sending people to college," Dixon said. "This is a health crisis."

Dixon said she disagreed with a State Ethics Commission ruling in June 2000 that said it was a conflict of interest for her to have two jobs, earning a combined $109,000 annually.

In addition to her $80,000-a-year City Council post, she also worked for the state Department of Business and Economic Development as a senior trade representative, trying to attract investment in Maryland. After two years of dual employment, Dixon said she took a leave of absence from her state position last summer to focus on the council presidency.

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