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Hopefuls' top foe: Dixon's incumbency

The Baltimore Sun

It's early, really early, but here is City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. standing at a corner in West Baltimore, a bevy of mostly young volunteers waving Mitchell for Mayor signs all around him.

Such is the life of an underdog candidate for mayor whose campaign is marked by an old-fashioned, grass-roots strategy that includes door-knocking, phone banks and that most inglorious of all things, sign waving.

A week later, Mayor Sheila Dixon appears at a Southwest Baltimore neighborhood with an entourage -- 50-people strong, including some of the city's high-level officials, as television cameras and reporters trail her.

This is door-knocking, mayoral style. A campaign event, it's not. There is no campaign literature, no "Dixon for Mayor" T-shirts.

But the subtext is hardly subtle.

The white plastic baggies handed out say "Mayor Sheila Dixon" in large print and include yellow door-hangers with "Operation Protect" written on them, and again, "Mayor Sheila Dixon."

"We want to go out to figure out how we can be proactive to work with the community," Dixon says in a pre-walk pep-talk to a group that includes about a dozen firefighters, top brass from the police, fire, housing and health departments, community activists and young City Hall aides.

As the incumbent, Dixon has the inherent advantage of showcasing her platform the most natural way: through her work.

And she has the resources on hand to deliver on the promises -- as she's doing in this neighborhood right here, right now.

Dixon and Mitchell are among eight candidates competing in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary for mayor. Other candidates include Del. Jill P. Carter, schools administrator Andrey Bundley and Frank M. Conaway Sr., clerk of Baltimore's Circuit Court.

Dixon and Mitchell have raised the most money and were leading in a poll conducted for The Sun last month, though Dixon has a formidable edge on both fronts.

Some of Dixon's challengers say she is crossing the fine line between mayor and candidate by using her office as a platform for her campaign. Furthermore, they say, she has failed to articulate a specific platform. Unlike most of the other candidates, her campaign Web site has no issues listed, aside from her crime plan.

Then there is the city's revamped Web site -- featuring a prominent picture of the mayor and sometimes additional photographs of her.

And those "cleaner, greener, safer and healthier Baltimore" signs surfacing in West Baltimore, with Mayor Sheila Dixon's name on them? These city signs are not campaign literature, but they're a little splashier than what's usually posted by the government around Baltimore in nonelection years.

Martha McKenna, Dixon's campaign manager, said Dixon's platform is in the work she's doing as the mayor, evident from the plans and accomplishments on the city's Web site. "She really uses the city's master plan, and within that, the transition committee report, as her guide," McKenna said.

Both Mitchell and Carter have also criticized Dixon for skipping candidate forums and sending city employees in her place, a practice allowed by state law. Last week, the Mitchell campaign criticized Dixon for accepting donations from dozens of city employees.

Carter says the line between city employees and campaign employees has been crossed. "She's misusing her office," Carter said.

"I haven't seen much in the way of a platform," she added. "It's very telling about her lack of vision. She's been on the City Council for 20 years. It's no accident that we're in a crisis."

Mitchell questioned Dixon's use of city employees and resources as large entourages storm through neighborhoods to promote new programs like Operation Protect and campaigns to clean the streets.

"Any time you have an incumbent, it's always easier because you have the trappings of incumbency," said Mitchell. "People will argue that's the benefit of being the incumbent. That's just part of the establishment. That's why I tell people as I go around that we need to reform the government."

Asked about using her office as a platform for her campaign, Dixon bristled. "I'm running the city," she said. "My opponents are trying to attempt to do this. I'm trying to keep things focused and do a job, and I want people to see that I'm up to doing the job."

"I can't run a campaign and keep the city functioning and moving," she added. "So my priority is running the city and doing the best job that I can."

Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in every election, incumbents -- unless they've messed up -- have "incredible advantages."

"When you're an incumbent, you're a local celebrity, which attracts more coverage and builds name recognition" Herrnson said.

Being in an interim position, like Dixon, is an even bigger advantage, said Herrnson. "She hasn't been there that long to make decisions that have angered the city, but she's been there long enough to get a tremendous boost, such as in media coverage," said Herrnson. "She's in a win-win situation."

Without the advantages of incumbency, candidates such as Mitchell, Carter and Bundley are reduced to lower-key methods of campaigning.

For some, that means creativity kicks in.

Carter has been standing vigil overnight on street corners to talk to residents about crime and other issues on their minds.

On Friday and early yesterday morning, she spent the night on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., hosting a cookout to talk with residents.

Bundley has leased a recreational vehicle to serve as his "Prototype Mobile Mayor's Office," which can be spotted blaring "Bundley for Mayor" messages across the city.

And Mitchell has stuck to traditional campaign staples such as waving signs on corners during the morning commute, canvassing neighborhoods with teams of volunteers and working phone banks. "If I go to a church or knock on someone's door, people will say, 'I saw you on the corner,'" he said. "It gets your name out. Shows enthusiasm."

Not all of Dixon's challengers criticize her approach.

"It's hard to define what's actually campaigning and what's the business of the mayor," Conaway said.

"I think she's taking advantage of her incumbency," said Bundley. "I don't think she's exploiting it. She's doing no different than any other incumbent that I've seen since I've understood the political process."

And so Dixon continues with her work. At the Southwest Baltimore event, she listens to residents express concerns about everything from immigration to homelessness to changes in school assignments.

Resident Tanika Holt complains about rats, mold and lead paint in the house she rents at 31 S. Carey St. near Hollins Market. "Is anyone from housing here?" Dixon asks. Without waiting for an answer she hollers: "Commissioner!"

Paul T. Graziano, the city's housing commissioner, appears, calling for one of his underlings, who then promises that a housing inspector would look into the complaints and fix them.

Problem solved.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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