Sheila Dixon, who became Baltimore's first black female mayor but resigned in disgrace after an embezzlement conviction, announced Wednesday that she is running to reclaim her old job — the first direct challenge to incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Dixon's announcement, which included a call for a safer city, came as homicides and shootings continued to spike in the aftermath of April's rioting. Political observers predicted a competitive race and said Dixon's odds of winning the April 26 Democratic primary improved following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and the unrest that shook the city.
"While [Dixon] probably would have gotten in the race anyway, the fact that the incumbent Mayor Rawlings-Blake seems to be having a bit of a backlash might have cemented the idea," said Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Still, Norris and others said Dixon would have to overcome voters' questions about her conviction to unseat Rawlings-Blake.
Dixon, 61, did not address the issue in the campaign announcement, which was made on her Facebook page with a link to a campaign website.
"I believe I have the leadership skills and experience to bring citizens across the city together to create a safer city that is also cleaner, greener and healthier than we are today," she wrote. "Together we can reclaim, revive and rebuild Baltimore."
Later, she said in an interview, "I have a lot to offer the city," but declined to talk at length about her campaign.
Dixon, who became mayor in 2007, resigned from office in January 2010 after she was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of stealing gift cards intended for the needy. She completed probation about two years ago, which made her eligible to run for public office again.
After being convicted of embezzlement, she agreed to leave office, perform 500 hours of community service and give $45,000 to charity. She received probation and was allowed to keep her pension, worth $83,000.
Later, she was charged with violating her probation after falling behind on the charitable payments. The probation was terminated after she made the full donations as promised.
Rawlings-Blake, 45, immediately tried to contrast her tenure with Dixon's.
"I think we need someone who has that track record of progress," Rawlings-Blake said in an interview.
She said that when she succeeded Dixon, she inherited a large budget deficit and a troubled pension system. As mayor, Rawlings-Blake said, she cut the structural deficit in half, and noted that the city has its highest bond rating in years.
Under her leadership, the city has opened new recreation centers and has embarked on a billion-dollar school construction program, she added.
"I look forward to running an aggressive campaign that clearly lays out the choice between where Baltimore was when I took office, and how far we have come under my leadership," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "We are constructing the first new schools in a generation and the first new recreation centers in a decade.
Rawlings-Blake and Dixon were long political allies, and have often carved out the same stances on issues. Dixon's inaugural address even paid homage to Rawlings-Blake and her late father, Howard "Pete" Rawlings, a longtime state delegate.
But by 2011, Dixon was advising the candidates who opposed Rawlings-Blake's election.
Political pundits noted that other elected officials have rebounded from legal troubles, including the late Marion Barry, who was re-elected as Washington's mayor after serving six months in prison for possession of cocaine.
Washington City Councilwoman Anita Bonds, who worked with Barry, said that "all politicians can rebound if they have strong connections to the community." She said Dixon may have a harder time than Barry because his issues were related to personal failings, not questions about handling money.
But, she said, voters believe in forgiveness. "As humans, we all understand we should be given a second chance."
Norris said stories of politicians re-entering public life after legal troubles are "as American as apple pie." He noted turn-of-the-century Boston mayor James Michael Curley, who won re-election from a prison cell.
In Maryland, former Gov. Marvin Mandel was convicted in 1977 of mail fraud and racketeering and sent to federal prison. President Ronald Reagan commuted the sentence in 1981, the conviction was later overturned and he returned to political life, serving on the state university system's Board of Regents.
Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University, said voters are not likely to overlook Dixon's past.
"Everyone else who runs will be bringing it up," he said. "She needs to get in front of her record, issue an apology, a recognition that it was wrong and that she has suffered her punishment."
Rawlings-Blake will likely focus a lot of attention on Dixon's conviction, said Todd Eberly, an associate political science professor at St. Mary's College. He said that message will resonate with many struggling city residents.
"She was convicted for putting her interests above those folks in her community," Eberly said. "Certainly if you're Rawlings-Blake, you're absolutely going to be bringing it up over and over again. 'How can we trust her?'"
Still, Dixon has a strong chance, Eberly said, adding, "Americans love an underdog."
The Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr., pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore, expressed surprise when he heard Dixon's announcement. But he noted that she received a rousing reception during Gray's April 27 funeral service at his church.
When Dixon's name was acknowledged as one of the many current and former officials at the funeral, the response was "electric," Carter said.
"It brought about some tension because it happened in front of our mayor," Carter said. "For those who were in the service it suggests there was some sense of forgiveness, if nothing else."
The Maryland Democratic Party declined to comment on Dixon's announcement.
The state's Republican Party saw the challenge as a sign of Rawlings-Blake's vulnerability after the recent rioting.
"It's interesting because a couple months ago people were talking about [Rawlings-Blake] as a possible Senate candidate," said Joe Cluster, the group's director. "Now she's resigned to defending her mayorship. Her lack of action during the riots could be seen as something that has ruined her political future and people are taking advantage of it."
Councilman Robert W. Curran said Dixon will be a formidable opponent for Rawlings-Blake, but did not say whom he might support.
"Obviously she's won citywide elections," Curran said of Dixon, adding, "I don't know how the dynamic would change between now and the first of the year."
Rawlings-Blake became mayor in 2010 when Dixon resigned and was elected to a full term the following year. Voters agreed in 2012 to move the next election to 2016 to align the contest with the presidential race, giving Rawlings-Blake a five-year term.
Other well-known Democrats have indicated an interest in the mayor's position, which pays $163,000 a year. It's unclear which Republicans may join the race.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Councilmen Nick Mosby and Carl Stokes, and state Del. Jill P. Carter are among those who have not ruled out a run.
Councilman Brandon M. Scott, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he's considering running for mayor or seeking re-election to his council seat.
According to online election records, Mack Clifton is the only person who has filed as a mayoral candidate.
Rawlings-Blake reported in January that she had more than $365,000 in the bank for her re-election campaign. A campaign finance report Dixon filed in March shows she has nearly $78,000 on hand.
Dixon, a mother of two and a black belt in karate, was first elected to the City Council in 1987. In 1999, she became the first African-American woman to become City Council president, the same year that Martin O'Malley became mayor. The two would run for re-election as "partners in progress."
According to her campaign website, Dixon worked to create a "cleaner, greener, healthier, and safer Baltimore." She said she established the gun offender registry, a single stream recycling program and the Charm City Circulator.
Dixon's criminal baggage and her political ties to O'Malley's zero-tolerance policing strategy are issues likely to come up during the campaign. Rawlings-Blake and O'Malley publicly disagreed over his approach, which many have blamed for the existing tension between some communities and police. During Rawlings-Blake's administration, homicides declined to a two-decade low in 2011, even as arrests plummeted.
Dixon will have to answer for those zero-tolerance policies, said the Rev.GregoryB.Perkins, pastorof St. Paul Community Baptist Church.
Perkins is also concerned about Dixon's conviction. "We all make mistakes, but that whole situation could have been avoided," Perkins said.
"The cards were given for poor children and their families."
He said that "at the present" he is supporting Rawlings-Blake.
"Don't take that as an endorsement," he added. "I've worked with both Dixon and the mayor. It's a very difficult job. I will work with whomever becomes mayor."
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.