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Lingering ethical cloud over Dixon gets harder to ignore

The Baltimore Sun

Is this the other shoe dropping?

For the past couple of years, Sheila Dixon has lived, worked and even gotten elected Baltimore mayor while under a cloud of suspicion as the state prosecutor investigated some eyebrow-raising contract-awarding patterns at City Hall.

All sorts of interesting details emerged about Dixon's tenure as City Council president - usually on the pages of The Sun, it must be said - from a company that hired Dixon's sister winning city contracts to various Dixon pals getting the same treatment.

And yet Dixon carried on, a picture of calm in the eye of this slow-swirling storm while subpoenas flew, offices were searched and bodies dropped, or at least pleaded guilty to something as Dixon remained untouched.

Until yesterday, that is, when prosecutors finally made their first public strike at the center of their long-running, nipping-around-the-edges investigation by raiding Dixon's house.

Who knows what they took, what was in the boxes, accordion files and blue wheelie cooler that they packed into the trunk of a Dodge Caravan, like some family of accountants on their way to the beach?

Who knows what Dixon might be charged with, or if she will even be charged with anything at all?

But for the woman who so famously waved one of her shoes during a racially charged City Council meeting and asked her white colleagues how they liked it now that it (meaning: political power) was on the other foot (meaning: black), it sure seemed like the other one might be dropping.

Despite perfect stakeout weather - believe me, over the years I've stood in decidedly worse weather waiting for the guys in the windbreakers to cart out the boxes - waiting outside Dixon's home yesterday to see whatever there was to see still gave me a queasy feeling.

I happen to think Dixon had a point - albeit an artlessly voiced one - back in 1991, when what was already a majority-black city still had a majority-white leadership. (She has said she was responding to a racial insult from a white council member.)

Flash forward to today, when not only are the four top elected city officials - mayor, council president, state's attorney and comptroller - black, they're also women.

At this point, surely no one is naive or partisan enough to think that simply electing - pick a group: blacks, women, Democrats, Republicans, Martians, whatever - means you're going to automatically get better government. No, diversity is a worthy goal in and of itself, not a straight path toward getting a purer, nobler public official.

As Baltimore's first female mayor, Dixon already has her place in city history. But yesterday watching her - wearing a jaunty track suit and baseball hat and leaving her home in the hands of the state officers searching it - I wondered what the rest of her chapter would say.

Would she join the rogues' gallery of fallen public officials, which in Maryland takes up quite a big wall, from Spiro Agnew to Marvin Mandel, from Jacqueline McLean to Ed Norris?

We're getting way ahead of ourselves here, of course, and Dixon has not been charged with anything. Those who have liked much of what they've seen so far in her six months as mayor - the declining homicide and shooting rates, the single-stream recycling, for example - are hoping that they'll still have a mayor who can continue working on the city's problems and not her own.

But it's hard to ignore this ethical cloud that has hovered over Dixon and has darkened with yesterday's raid. What we do know to date is troubling, from Dixon's campaign manager not filing tax returns for work he did at City Hall, to her sister being employed by a company that won city contracts, to Dixon herself admitting to twisting arms to help out a contractor friend.

If Dixon wanted that shoe on the other foot so that it's her turn to help out family and friends, well, maybe that explains the true meaning of that much-maligned slogan that the city adopted a couple of years ago.

Is Dixon simply getting in on it?

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