It's business as usual day after mayor is indicted

The Baltimore Sun

A day after becoming the first Baltimore mayor to be indicted, Mayor Sheila Dixon maintained a public schedule designed to show her steely backbone and close connections with the community - donning boxing gloves at a gym in West Baltimore and later giving heartfelt advice to underprivileged girls at a Boys and Girls Club in Brooklyn.

"If you make a mistake today, you can get up the next day and keep focused with what you need to do," Dixon, a Democrat, told the Brooklyn group.

She could have been talking about herself.

Dixon has often said that she is motivated by adversity, and that's just what might have kept her moving yesterday, hours after state prosecutors accused her of theft, perjury and other offenses potentially punishable by 85 years in prison.

The mayor declined to answer questions about the charges she faces. At the Upton Boxing Center, where she was greeted enthusiastically by a friendly crowd as she launched a citywide fitness program, she told one reporter: "Are you talking about Fit Baltimore? Because that's all I'm talking about."

It was a classic Dixon diversion. Despite being dogged by state and federal investigators for more than five years, Dixon, 55, has pushed to the highest levels of city government, becoming Baltimore's first female mayor and a popular figure who champions quality-of-life issues and crime fighting.

Even as court documents have disclosed details and allegations about her private life - first, fur coats and shopping sprees from a prominent developer who is her ex-boyfriend, and now gift cards intended for the city's needy spent on video games and electronics - she has expressed no contrition and has said she has done nothing wrong. The bulk of the allegations stem from 2004 and 2005, when she was City Council president.

The mayor was indicted Friday on 12 counts, including theft, perjury, fraud and misconduct in office after a nearly three-year probe by the state prosecutor's office. She was accused, among other offenses, of stealing hundreds of dollars of gift cards donated by developer Ronald H. Lipscomb and another developer to be used for needy families.

The charge threatens to undermine Dixon's reputation as a leader who emphasizes the needs of residents.

Dondrea Ross, who runs a group called No Family Left Behind, called the gift-card accusation "appalling," especially in a city filled with poor people.

Ross' group, which operates from the 300-family Lanvale Tower Canal Court housing project in Oliver, said she asked the mayor's office for help purchasing holiday presents for 103 children but got no response. She had more luck with Toys for Tots.

Ross is a single mother of a 16-year-old son. She receives $851 a month on disability, but she said she still donates her time and what money she can to help people needier than she. "The mayor is supposed to set a standard for all of us," Ross said. "If you we can't trust her, who can we trust?"

In a news conference Friday afternoon, Dixon declared her innocence.

Unseemly allegations about the mayor's receiving and handing off thousands of dollars in cash were included in the indictment, including a revelation that developer Lipscomb, then Dixon's boyfriend, paid for a Chicago shopping trip that included purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue, Giorgio and Coach. Lipscomb, whose projects received tax breaks from the city, was indicted Wednesday on separate charges of bribery that came out of the same City Hall probe. City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton was also indicted.

It remains to be seen how the stigma of an indictment will affect Dixon's ability to govern beyond ceremonial appearances such as those yesterday.

In what is shaping up to be a challenging year, the city is struggling to keep down homicide numbers that have dipped during her tenure. At least a dozen people have already been killed this year.

Budget and economic woes are pervasive. The mayor already cut about $35 million from city agencies this year and will have to reduce nearly twice that in the coming budget year. The cuts are bound to create tensions, and fire and police union leaders have expressed anger over proposed pension benefit reductions.

But since the indictment was released, Dixon has taken steps to show that she will not be distracted. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she had a telephone conversation with Dixon on Friday afternoon - at just about the time the mayor was indicted - and that it was "business as usual."

"We talked about the plans for bringing gun legislation to Annapolis this year," Jessamy said, noting that they did not discuss the indictments. "She and I are both on the same page in terms of making this city better. The mayor is going to keep conducting business. We have to keep moving forward."

Several hours later, Dixon's weekly newsletter The Dixon Report appeared in e-mail boxes with vague references to "challenges," including a pledge that "we will weather this storm" - which could be read as a reference to the city's tough fiscal situation.

Dixon's first event of the day yesterday - a 10:30 a.m. "boxercise" session to kick off a new citywide health initiative - was rife with political symbolism.

The embattled mayor donned a pair of red boxing gloves and climbed into a ring with a group of supporters, including Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. The group practiced throwing punches to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger," a theme from later Rocky movies.

"Risin' up to the challenge of our rival. ... Hangin' tough, stayin' hungry ... They stack the odds 'til we take to the street."

It didn't go quite as planned. As Dixon and others jogged in a circle and then shadow boxed, the ring shuddered and then collapsed.

"It was a little shaky up there, and I was like, 'Wow, this is a little weak,' " Dixon said after leaving the ring.

When asked if she was thinking about State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh as she practiced her punches, Dixon said: "I wasn't thinking about anything except exercise."

The mayor and others continued their workout on the firmer ground of the gym floor after the collapse.

Clarke, viewed as an independent voice on the City Council, said Dixon was "in a fight for us as a city to pull through this budget crisis and she's in a fight for herself."

She called the indictment a "regrettable moment in our history" but said the charges laid out are "not a show stopper."

But others wondered.

"I was very upset just hearing it," said Loretta Warfield, who organizes a large holiday giving project each year for needy families in Curtis Bay, referring to the mayor's indictment.

"Everybody's talking about it. I just had to turn it off," Warfield said of the news. "It was shocking. It's a shame it had to happen. But then you have to ask yourself, 'Is it true?' Only God knows."

At the mayor's public events, most supported Dixon. "It just shows that she's human," said Natalie Onwuanaibe, 18, who worked out with the mayor in Upton.

Others at the gym felt that Dixon's misdeeds were no worse than those of previous city politicians. "There has always been a shady side" to political leaders, said Yvonne Logan, 55, a lab technician at University of Baltimore.

Across town, at the Boys and Girls Club in Brooklyn, Dixon had a frank talk with about 40 girls, touching on drugs, safe sex and self-esteem.

Television cameras from four stations followed as Dixon left the building.

"We're in a new year, and it is important that we stay focused on trying to improve one's personal space in life," said Dixon, before climbing into her city SUV. "Today's been a really positive day."

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