Mayor is congenial, confident at neighborhood chat

The Baltimore Sun

The speaker stepped up to one of two microphones set up in the aisles of the auditorium of Edmondson Westside High School.

"I kind of feel like I'm on American Idol," he allowed.

"Are you going to sing for us?" asked Mayor Sheila Dixon, flashing a smile as the audience laughed.

The colloquy occurred last week, partway through the first of a series of "Neighborhood Conversations" the new mayor plans to hold around the city.

Seven weeks into her abbreviated 10-month tenure filling out what remains of the term of now-Gov. Martin O'Malley, the exchange illustrates the degree of comfort, congeniality and confidence the former City Council president is projecting, at least in public.

Considered by some to be brittle, insular and less than likable, Dixon's persona could be an important factor as she mounts her campaign for a full four-year term as mayor while holding the reins of government. To understand the role that personality can play in politics, you need go back no further than the Bush-Gore presidential campaign of 2000.

The more open she appears, the easier it's going to be for her to combat one of the key negatives about her. That would be the issue of trust, engendered by such actions as her advocacy for a company that employed her sister - a matter that has been under investigation for months by the state prosecutor and has led to the indictment of the firm's president but no charges against Dixon.

To be sure, last week's forum, modeled after similar events O'Malley put on periodically, was held on friendly territory: Dixon lives barely a half-mile from the school in Southwest Baltimore. After Edmondson's jazz band warmed up the crowd with versions of songs like James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)," the school's principal introduced Dixon as the "first African-American woman to hold the prestigious office of mayor" - a statement to which the audience responded with a standing ovation.

In South and Southeast Baltimore, where soaring property assessments and height limits on new development are thorny issues, or on the east or west side, where crime is seemingly unchecked, the reaction of residents - and the demeanor of the mayor - might be different.

Still, it was hard not to be struck by how Dixon was at ease, affable and even articulate - the latter no mean feat for a politician whose syntax has at times been as twisted as a bowl of spaghetti.

Dressed in a gray pantsuit and seated on a chair ( for those who wonder if I'd describe what a man was wearing, O'Malley used to do these events with his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened), with representatives of her Cabinet seated on the elevated stage behind her, Dixon for the most part deftly answered the questions that were posed to her.

One of the toughest came from a woman who wanted to know why more heads didn't roll over the botched training exercise that led to the death of fire cadet Racheal Wilson.

"We have an investigation going on," Dixon said. "This process is not over. At this time, that's just a decision we made."

One of the more interesting questions came from a resident of the Uplands neighborhood, who worried that the city's plans for a major new residential development on the site of a vacant low-income apartment complex would lead it to ignore existing neighborhoods.

"It's a balance," Dixon replied. "We're not going to create a whole new community and not enhance what we have." Aides chimed in with plans for streetscaping and business development along Edmondson Avenue.

"Balance" was a word Dixon also used in response to a request for more foot patrols in Morrell Park, saying laws needed to be enforced in ways that would increase faith in the police and that more funding was needed for Police Athletic League programs.

To one complaint, about the need for new lighting in the West Hills neighborhood that abuts Baltimore County, Dixon said, "You're right," and directed the city's transportation chief to look into the problem. To another, concerning traffic, she sardonically called her neighborhood the "speed hump capital" of the city and mentioned a task force looking into alternatives to slow down speeders.

More than one question concerned dirty parks and streets, dovetailing neatly into what has become the centerpiece of her fledgling administration.

"My philosophy and my theme has been a cleaner, greener, healthier, educated city," she said in a succinct summation of her goals at the beginning of the forum.

She also had this to say about the coming months:

"In this interesting period, as I call it, which is an election year, I want to be very clear that what I do is keep Baltimore moving," Dixon said.

If she can do that, while maintaining the friendly face on display last week, both Dixon and the city will be well-served over the next several months.

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