A tough Mayor Dixon fights challenge from affable City Councilman Mitchell

The Baltimore Sun

It is quiet at Equinox Hair in West Baltimore on a recent weekend morning. The only customers, Quinn Cokley and his two boys, are rotating between a couch along the wall and the barber's chair. No one smiles when Sheila Dixon walks in.

The mayor introduces herself, and Cokley quietly -- gently, even -- begins asking tough questions. He notes that many residents have put their children in public schools against their better judgment. He wants to know what Dixon has done to improve education and, more importantly, what she's going to do if elected.

"First of all, I taught school," Dixon responds, launching into her education platform -- which includes building new schools and opening them for community activities in the evening. "We've had so much conflict. Our kids have been caught up in that conflict. This year's going to be different. This year's going to be key."

Despite past ethical lapses, a significant increase in the number of homicides under her tenure and a campaign that has been largely devoid of specific proposals, Dixon is winning over Baltimore voters in a big way with her folksy, confident charm and by touting the difficult decisions she has made during her past eight months in office.

Dixon, the former City Council president, became Baltimore's 48th mayor -- and the first woman to hold that title -- on Jan. 17, the day her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, became governor. Now, she is running for a full, four-year term in Tuesday's primary election against six candidates, including City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Del. Jill P. Carter.

Credit due

In her past eight months on the job, Dixon, who is 53, has been credited with advancing a west side redevelopment project that languished for years, breathing new life into a police department that had become a liability under the former commissioner -- whom she fired -- and vowing to build at least seven new schools in the next decade.

The Baltimore native -- a mother of two who lives in the Hunting Ridge neighborhood near the city's western edge -- has talked about making the city cleaner. She has promised to light a fire under government employees, especially those who provide city services. She has adopted a softer, more community-friendly style of crime fighting.

Even her critics acknowledge that Dixon has brought together some of the city's most respected leaders. Former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, former state Democratic party leader Vera P. Hall and Kweisi Mfume -- the former congressman who many believe could have defeated Dixon had he run for mayor -- have aligned themselves with her administration.

"She's got spunk. And she's got the heart of a lion, and she's got compassion," said Mfume, a longtime ally who pushed Dixon to take his council seat when he left for Congress in 1987. "I think most people may not be aware of the amount of compassion that Sheila has for others. She doesn't wear it on her sleeve. As a strong, independent woman I think she's had to, in many instances, wear a tougher shell."

Her tenure, though, has also been riddled with problems -- a major increase in homicides chief among them. In the midst of an uptick in violent crime, she angered many police and firefighters -- already a dicey relationship because of contract negotiations -- by repeatedly shifting policies. She has tinkered with personnel in the housing department while many of its most talented staff resigned.

Ethical questions

Dixon, meanwhile, has yet to fully overcome ethical questions about some past actions -- in large part because she has rarely addressed them head on. It is a weakness her opponents in the race have exploited and that has sometimes affected her ability to lead. When her administration proposed loosening the same restrictions on public spending she was accused of skirting last year, the City Council shot the idea down.

Most recently, Dixon came under fire in 2006 when she was City Council president for voting on city contracts that went to her sister's employer -- an action she initially denied taking. She did not file complete ethics forms until after reports about her sister first appeared in The Sun. The paper also disclosed that her former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, received $600,000 in taxpayer money without a contract.

Clark was charged by the Maryland State Prosecutor last month for not filing an income tax return for three years while he worked for the city. The city's ethics board took a pass on investigating the contracts, but the prosecutor is still looking into the matter.

Dixon maintains that she has done nothing wrong. Weeks before taking office, she said she intended to discuss what happened, to lay out "the facts." That never took place, but Dixon told The Sun's editorial board late last month that she has tried to explain and people do not want to hear.

"Y'all want to still continue to print what you want to print. I think I've tried to explain that to folks," she said, suggesting that the original contract to Clark was issued through another division of the council, not the president's office.

"The mistake that was made, and I'll take total blame on that, is [that] before taking that contract over to the president's office, that whole process should have taken place. When I took it over ... my staff, I relied on, to get the bid out and to do that. It was [the] purchasing and finance [agencies] and it wasn't all my fault. ... It was a system that needed to be changed," she said.

While last year's ethical issues are the most recent, they are not the first. The council was sued in 2002 after Dixon held a closed-door meeting with other members to discuss potential legislation. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the meeting violated the state's Open Meetings Act and the proposal was killed because of the way Dixon handled it.

A year later, The Sun reported that Dixon's sister, Janice, worked in the council president's office and Dixon was forced to fire her when the ethics board ruled that such employment violated city regulations. (Other council members also were forced to fire relatives they were employing.)

Despite this extensive media coverage, Dixon has persevered and maintained front-runner status. She has raised more money than anyone else and has stayed ahead in polls conducted for The Sun and by many of the candidates.

That lead has allowed Dixon to emphasize her incumbency on the campaign trail and generally ignore opponents. She is relaxed with voters, if not always focused on issues (she once engaged in a long discussion about breast feeding with a pregnant woman in Federal Hill whose door she knocked on while campaigning). She has conveyed a confidence that appears to be resonating with residents, other elected officials and most of the city's major unions.

Dixon was born two days after Christmas in 1953, a middle child, to Winona and Phillip Dixon Sr. He was one of the city's first successful black car dealers. She was active in the community, and later in politics -- including campaigns for Mfume. The family moved to Ashburton when Dixon was young.

Dixon remembers Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and the riots and curfews that followed. She remembers being bused to Mordecai Gist Elementary School No. 69 as part of a policy to integrate the city schools. But she said her parents were friendly with both white and black families, and she rarely confronted prejudice as a child -- except in one instance.

In second grade, a white teacher told Dixon she'd never amount to anything. Dixon decided to make a career of education. "I wanted to be a teacher so that I could make sure that no other children would ever hear that," she said in 2003. Dixon graduated from Northwestern High in 1972 and earned her bachelor's degree from what is now Towson University, which at the time had an overwhelmingly white enrollment.

She began teaching alternative education -- helping dropouts get their GED -- and then worked as a kindergarten teacher at Steuart Hill Elementary School until 1986. She earned a master's degree in education management from the Johns Hopkins University in 1985.

She took up karate the summer after graduating high school. She started the martial arts pursuit to meet a young man in the class, but stuck with it long after he was out of the picture. She now holds a black belt and is zealous about fitness and healthy eating -- a discipline manifested in a fit figure and an ability to stay sharp after working long hours. She says she has not eaten pork or red meat in over 40 years.

Dixon never had to use her karate but says she came close once on the train coming back from New York. She nodded off and a man sitting next to her started to get frisky. He backed off, she said, adding, "I almost poked his eyes out."

Tough words from a woman who many former and current staff members say is a demanding and often curt boss. As council president, she burned through top aides -- including one spokeswoman who resigned weeks after starting. Dixon is often praised, though, for being as hard on herself as she is on others.

Council beginnings

Dixon was elected in 1987 to represent the former 4th District of the City Council after serving on the Democratic State Central Committee and working on campaigns in Northwest Baltimore. At the time, she split a secretary with then-Councilman Joe DiBlasi, who sat directly behind her in the council chambers.

"She has moxie. She has a lot of moxie," said DiBlasi, who represented South Baltimore and who is now a sports marketing consultant. "But she also knows how to interact with anybody, any citizen, any voter in any part of the city."

For many years, Dixon's citywide reputation seemed defined by a 1991 incident in which she waved her shoe in the air during a racially charged council debate over redistricting. According to reports at the time -- there is no tape of the meeting -- she told her white colleagues: "You've been running things for the last 20 years -- now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it."

She has said she was responding to a racial insult by a white council member, but the symbolism was powerful, and lasting. When Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. announced his candidacy for mayor this year, he waved a high-heeled shoe. His message was clear.

Dixon ran for council president in 1999 -- the same year O'Malley ran for mayor -- and the two have been considered allies. Her behind-the-scenes approach with O'Malley was criticized as too cozy by some but lauded as refreshing cooperation by others. Whichever, it differed from the previous president, Lawrence A. Bell III, who captured attention by skewering the mayor.

'Discipline,' 'passion'

"She's a self-disciplined person. She's also passionately committed to the people of our city. The other thing that impresses me about her and always has is her work ethic," said O'Malley, who ran on the same ticket as Dixon in 2004 and who endorsed her this year. "These last several months have been rough for the city on the crime front...but I believe that she has the tenacity and the commitment to bring us through this rough patch and get us back on track."

O'Malley and Dixon were opponents during the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. O'Malley, then a councilman, blasted what he called Schmoke's lax policing strategies. After being elected mayor, O'Malley employed a zero-tolerance policing approach in which police made arrests for quality of life and other lesser crimes.

Dixon, by contrast, has frequently said the police department "cannot arrest its way out" of the crime problem. The mayor, whose brother struggled with heroin addiction before he died of AIDS, has adopted a more lenient, community-based approach to fighting crime and has emphasized the importance of treatment over arrests.

With a group of friends, Dixon started a business in the 1980s importing handbags from Kenya, an idea that led her to a position with the state Department of Business and Economic Development -- a position she held for the first 2 1/2 years she served as City Council president.

Dixon married Mark Edward Smith in 1982 and the two divorced six years later. She married Thomas E. Hampton in New York in 1988 and the two divorced last year. Her daughter, who is 18, recently started college in New York. Her son, who is 12, attends Catholic school in Baltimore County.

Her children have helped on the campaign -- especially Jasmine, who has attended a number of her mother's events recently. Her nephew whom she helped raise, NBA player Juan Dixon, has also helped the campaign.

A campaign commercial that started this week features both of her children prominently. Dixon said she has worked to balance her roles as mother and mayor -- adding that the strong relationship she enjoys with their father helps.

"We're very active in their lives. We have constant communication. They aren't involved in any drama that we have," Dixon said. "We put them first."


Sheila Dixon

Date of birth: Dec. 27, 1953 Job: Mayor of Baltimore since January; elected president of the City Council in 1999 and 2004. Personal: Divorced; two children. Dixon lives in the Hunting Ridge neighborhood. Education: Northwestern High School, 1972; Towson University, B.A., 1976; The Johns Hopkins University, M.S., 1985. Election history: Elected to City Council in 1987, 1991 and 1995. Elected president of the City Council in 1999 and 2004. Succeeded O'Malley as mayor in January. Campaign Web site: www.sheiladixon.com

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad