Promising to deliver a more cohesive government to City Hall and cleaner streets to city neighborhoods, Sheila Dixon was sworn in yesterday as Baltimore's 48th mayor in an inauguration that celebrated recent progress but repeatedly acknowledged the daunting challenges ahead.
"I don't think for one second this is going to be easy. I think we've grown accustomed to explaining away problems instead of solving them," Dixon said inside the cavernous War Memorial Building. "But I don't think any of us wants Baltimore to be known as the city that knows how to make excuses."
Dixon, 53, became the city's first female mayor this week when her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, was sworn in as governor after winning a bitter election that frequently brought attention to the city's struggles with crime, education and drug addiction. Now, Dixon has less than a year to develop solutions to those problems in order to make a mark on one of the toughest jobs in government.
Dixon spoke forcefully, and at times emotionally, about her rise in politics and her hopes for the future. In a 24-minute speech delivered to more than 1,400 city employees, police and fire officials, and political supporters, she continually suggested that the city is divided by those people who are blaming one another rather than working together. She spoke of "old ideas and long-held grudges" and "factions" that must be erased if Baltimore is to grow.
"I think this city is ready to put aside political battles and present a united front to protect our children. Yes, we do have legitimate disagreements. But what is more important, wining a political battle or making progress for our children?" Dixon asked. "Do we want to make a point? Or do we want to make a difference?"
Dixon did not identify who she felt was responsible for "petty differences," but the characterization could easily have applied to several officials sitting steps away. O'Malley, for instance, often clashed with Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy while he was mayor. Some feel their acrimonious relationship hampered the city's ability to fight crime.
"Our motto is, working together we can make a difference," Jessamy said after hearing Dixon's words. "We have strived over the years to put that into effect. I'm very hopeful that this motto will become the motto for the city because we intend in the state's attorney's office to work with this new mayor to make the city as safe as possible."
Because Dixon did not campaign for mayor, her address was an introduction for many to a woman who has served on the City Council for the past 19 years - including seven as its president - and to the policies she intends to pursue. Her successes and failures will help voters determine whether to elect the West Baltimore native to a full, four-year term later this year.
Standing beside her two children, Jasmine and Joshua, Dixon took the oath of office as about 60 officials shared the stage, including O'Malley, retired U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. Members of the City Council - including several who might run against her for mayor in September's primary - and the city's delegation to the General Assembly also attended.
O'Malley said that he was impressed with Dixon's speech and that he believes he has left the city in good hands.
"She talked about the new hope that's in the city and the faith we have to have in one another to continue our progress," O'Malley said. "I think her delivery was very strong, and I think she was able to speak to the city's hopes.
"There was a lot of excitement in the room. It was a historic day with the very first woman to become mayor. There was a lot of excitement there and the thought that a new mayor will bring a fresh perspective and new energy."
Though short on specifics, Dixon broadly discussed the policies she is expected to pursue this year, including an attempt to reduce trash strewn throughout inner-city neighborhoods. She promised to develop a strategy to eradicate homelessness and endorsed requiring residential developers to build affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents alongside pricier, market-rate homes.
A proposal to impose those requirements is pending in the City Council and, if approved, could come to Dixon for her signature later this year.
She also talked about reducing city taxes, which could become a major issue in this year's campaign for mayor. Despite modest reductions over the past two years, Baltimore's property tax rate is the highest in Maryland. The city's budget, meanwhile, has recorded large surpluses for the past two years.
"I pledge today to ensure that we live within our means, to watch your dollars and to ensure they are spent wisely, and to do everything we can to ease your tax burden," she said.
Dixon made only a slight reference to the ethics scandal involving city contracts that were awarded to a company that employed her sister, noting only that she is "much more than a newspaper headline." The city's Board of Ethics cleared her of any wrongdoing in the matter, which was first reported by The Sun.
As council president, Dixon was not generally considered a strong public speaker, but several members of the audience praised her speech for both its style and substance, lauding it for touching on critical themes and stressing the need to consider diverse viewpoints in the quest to find "common ground" for solving the city's problems.
"I thought the mayor's speech was inspirational," said Martha Benton, tenant council president for the Douglass Homes public housing complex in East Baltimore. "She covered education, jobs, homelessness. ... I think the citizens of Baltimore, like myself, need to be more a part of the solution than part of the problem."
Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a former councilman, said he was "really impressed" by the speech.
"Public speaking has not always been one of her strong points, but she really sounded the right notes," Landers said. "Her point about getting everyone around the table and coming up with solutions is an important one."
Dixon's ability to find compromise and make progress will probably be challenged as a growing number of people line up to seek her job. Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. is expected to formally file his candidacy for mayor today, and Del. Jill P. Carter, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and former high school principal Andrey Bundley have also said they will run.
Even Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., who by law was required to administer the oath of office to Dixon yesterday, is running for mayor.
Dixon's ability to woo voters might be directly related to how well she confronts two issues - crime and education - neither of which was dealt with at length in her speech. Dixon has retained O'Malley's police commissioner, Leonard D. Hamm, and has endorsed a shift toward community policing and away from the zero-tolerance approach O'Malley favored.
So far, Dixon has demurred when asked how she will deal with the city's homicide rate. There have been 17 killings in Baltimore this year. Aides say the mayor is preparing to unveil a series of policy proposals soon, including ideas for fighting crime, improving education and creating more affordable housing.
"In the Dixon administration, we're not going to find excuses," Dixon said. "We're going to find solutions."
Sun reporters Eric Siegel, Andrew A. Green and Richard Irwin contributed to this article.
Dec. 27, 1953, in Baltimore
Northwestern High School, 1972; Towson University, Bachelor of Arts in early childhood education, 1976; the Johns Hopkins University, Master of Science in educational management, 1985
Teacher, Baltimore public schools, 1977-1986; City Council member, 4th District, 1987-1999; City Council president, 1999-2007; mayor, Jan. 17, 2007-present.
Married to Thomas E. Hampton in 1988; filed for divorce in 2006; two children, Jasmine and Joshua