Sheila Dixon dispels gloom with surprising mayoral debut

The Baltimore Sun

Less than a year ago, many Baltimoreans thought their city was doomed -- doomed not only to persistent crime and poverty but also to weak leadership.

Hardly anyone looked forward cheerfully to City Council President Sheila Dixon as the city's next mayor.

There was fretful talk of radical opposition: Shouldn't the city's voters try to re-elect Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. so that Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate for governor, would have to stay on as mayor? In that event, Ms. Dixon would be confined to the council presidency.

It was hard to find anyone who thought she was up to the job. Her way of speaking, afflicted with the occasional glaring malapropism, did not recommend her. And she was under the cloud of an ethics investigation.

Andrew B. Frank, now a deputy mayor, says a well-known civic leader was so disconsolate at the prospect of a Mayor Dixon that he thought about selling his house and leaving the city.

Then doomsday dawned. Mr. O'Malley became governor and Ms. Dixon became Mayor Dixon.

Almost overnight, the dire forecasts gave way to near-elation. People smiled and asked their friends, "What do you think of Sheila now?" They began calling her by her first name, suggesting a personal relationship. A dramatic public makeover was underway.

Her transformation is ascribed to various factors, including the relative lack of exposure any City Council member earns, obscuring growth. Others say the low expectations have been her biggest ally. Against the gloomy forecasts, her performance has seemed almost miraculous.

Still, bursting from the cocoon of councilmanic obscurity, the new mayor has displayed a nimbleness no one predicted.

She acted quickly to deal with several crises, including the death of a firefighter recruit in a botched training exercise.

She has participated knowledgeably in regional discussions of how to deal with the influx of new residents as a result of the national military base realignment and closure operation.

She has been on the front page of the newspaper, finding the usual public relations opportunities and smiling warmly. She spoke recently at the funeral of former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, hailing his leadership and its importance to a young girl who wanted to excel. Her remarks were a testimony to Mr. Mitchell's leadership -- and to her own success.

Those who work with her attest to the value of her life experience -- personal and professional.

"Her instincts are keen," says Mr. Frank, who came to City Hall from the Baltimore Development Corp. "We've given her advice she hasn't taken, and invariably she's been right."

Many in City Hall observe her work ethic and her devotion to the city. Her assumption of new responsibilities brings inevitable comparisons with her predecessors. Kurt L. Schmoke, who was mayor for 12 years, arrived in office amid very high expectations and may have suffered from them. A cerebral man without the experience of Ms. Dixon, he was given only mediocre marks as mayor.

There is more of a parallel with William Donald Schaefer, who was elected in 1971 after many years on the council. He also began his mayoralty amid fears of inadequacy. But he had learned the job far better than anyone might have known then. And he was as devoted to the city as associates say Mayor Dixon is.

There are those who say the new mayor has not been adequately tested. Others say she has had plenty of opportunity to make big mistakes, neatly avoiding them all.

And she has been tested personally in a way that few others can match. She and her sister essentially raised her nephew, former University of Maryland basketball star Juan Dixon, and his brother. Both their parents died from involvement with drugs. She understands what many in her city are going through and what it takes to survive.

So instead of doom and decline, Ms. Dixon may represent the sort of leadership a city such as Baltimore must have. Her experience gives her unprecedented mayoral credibility.

"She can challenge people to take personal responsibility," says Mr. Frank.

She can draw on a reservoir of pain -- and of hope.

C. Fraser Smith's column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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