Dixon quick to answer doubts

The Baltimore Sun

Nearly eight months ago, Sheila Dixon was ushered into the role of mayor under the specter of lingering ethical questions and doubts that she had the skills and temperament needed to shepherd Baltimore through a turbulent time.

Yesterday, despite those initial reservations, Dixon was swept into office. Election returns last night showed Dixon easily beating her six opponents to become the city's first elected female mayor and one of just two African-American women leading the country's 100 largest cities.

Political observers and elected officials say Dixon has managed to deftly and decisively respond to problems in the city's police and fire departments while promoting community-friendly programs, such as her "clean and green" initiative.

"Since she has been mayor after O'Malley became governor, she has basically come out for and promoted all of the initiatives on the whole that I think are important. I've been impressed by her actions," said Diane Stillman, 69, who voted at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute yesterday.

Once prone to temper tantrums, Dixon has succeeded in transforming her public image into one of a tough and determined yet compassionate woman, a persona that has apparently resonated with voters.

"I think there were some doubts in people's minds about her as a leader of the city, especially because of the ethical-type questions involving contracts and campaign people and her sister," said C. Vernon Gray, a Morgan State University political scientist. "But I think she has really won a lot of people with her toughness and her courage and her willingness to really tackle difficult, complex issues.

"She's been performing up to the job," he added. "She's been on top of her game."

At Harlem Park Elementary School on the city's west side, some voters said Dixon has been personally impressive so far.

"I voted for Sheila Dixon. She's a strong woman," said Millie Hunter, 57. "She stands her ground, and I think she can get the job done."

A former City Council president and West Baltimore councilwoman, Dixon, 53, was elevated to mayor Jan. 17, the day that her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, became governor.

As City Council president, she faced ethical questions for attempting to steer city work to a company that employed her sister. Though the city's ethics board dropped its investigation, the Maryland state prosecutor's office is still looking into the issue.

But Dixon brushed aside such questions and immediately dug into her new role as mayor.

She formed a 47-member transition team that included a diverse cross section of some the city's biggest names and thinkers.

Meanwhile, her opponents, who frequently tried to cast Dixon as a candidate rather than the incumbent, lined up to run against her, including City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Del. Jill P. Carter and schools administrator Andrey Bundley.

But their campaigns struggled to generate the traction and energy necessary for a serious challenge. Other talked-about potential candidates, such as former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, wound up staying out of the race. From the beginning, Dixon had a built-in, albeit temporary, advantage as the incumbent.

Each announcement, each unveiling of a program, each personnel decision was simultaneously a mayoral act and potentially a campaign one, something some of her opponents called an inappropriate use of her office.

To Dixon, it was business as usual. The campaign, she seemed to indicate, was distracting her from the immediate business on hand.

"She always had a reputation of being methodical and systematic in what she did," said Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs. "I also think she's done an enormous amount of bridge building since becoming acting mayor. She's reached out to institutions and groups and key players out there that are not just important to her winning the race but also to her governing."

City Councilman Robert W. Curran gave Dixon one of her first opportunities to distinguish herself from O'Malley by advancing Baltimore's smoking ban.

Shortly before Dixon became mayor, she indicated she would sign the bill and then worked behind the scenes to ensure its passage.

"She ran a five-star campaign," said Curran, who became vice president of the council this year - serving as Dixon's floor leader. "She didn't surprise me, but I think she's surprised some folks. She's got some good people around her, and her leadership really showed in these last eight months."

Dixon's eight-month tenure as mayor has not been without problems. After her shift in crime-fighting strategies, the city has experienced a significant increase in homicides and nonfatal shootings, a potential vulnerability her opponents tried to attack.

But Dixon's firing of former Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm was praised, as was her swift action in shaking up the city's Fire Department after the death of a fire cadet in February during a live-burn training exercise.

"She acted there not abruptly but decisively," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "She also took decisive action with the revolving police commissioners.

"I think that she's shown that she's a forceful but not out-of-control mayor," he added. "She's been temperate and somewhat restrained, but when there was an immediate need to act, she did. She's decided that she's going to be the mayor, and she seems to recognize what kind of discipline that calls for."

Experts say Dixon's wise choices in advisers helped turn around her public image and resulted in a well-orchestrated campaign. The relatively weak efforts of her opponents also gave her a boost.

"Bundley had run a couple of times before, so I'm surprised about his lack of a showing," said Gray. "And Keiffer was distracted by campaign finance issues, but he wasn't registering on people's radar screens even before that."

While other campaigns faltered - Mitchell experienced a setback last month when his staff discovered that his father had approved questionable expenditures as the campaign treasurer - Dixon amassed a significant amount of money for her campaign and a string of endorsements from political heavyweights, both unions and individuals.

Both O'Malley and Mfume publicly endorsed her last month.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat and former city councilwoman, said part of Dixon's strength as a candidate is that she was able to start quickly as mayor. Pugh ran against Dixon for City Council president in 2003 but supported her in this year's election.

"The most important thing that she did was that she obviously was prepared to be mayor," Pugh said. "She walked into the position and didn't skip a beat. She took the position very seriously ... and she chose the right people to surround herself with."

Observers say the fact that Dixon's election makes history, as she is the city's first female mayor and among a handful of African-American women in the country to ever lead a major urban center, cannot be understated. Dixon's support came largely from black women, the largest and most reliable voting bloc in the city.

Voting yesterday at Ruscombe Gardens Apartments in Northwest Baltimore, Doris M. Williams, 79, was brimming with pride when she said she voted for "my girl Sheila Dixon."

Williams said Dixon has the experience to do the job and has proven that she can. "It was a very happy decision," said Williams, a retired teacher. "I'm very proud. We women are doing big things now."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com john.fritze@baltsun.com

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