A few years ago, a woman from Columbia called me for help in landing a job somewhere in the Baltimore area, preferably in Howard County. She had been home from federal prison for more than a year and had been having trouble finding work.
What kind of position was she looking for? Something in accounting or banking.
Why had she been in prison? Embezzlement and fraud.
I understood why the woman wanted a job in accounting; it had been her profession. But she had stolen funds entrusted to her. I told the woman she probably needed to look for a job that did not involve other people’s money — landscaping maybe, or receptionist, for starters.
But, she asked, don’t employers believe in second chances?
Yes, but not so much when it comes to hiring people with criminal records. Companies are risk averse; many, if not most, worry about being sued for negligence in hiring if anything goes wrong. Some employers make an effort to give ex-offenders a job. (I know of a downtown business willing right now to hire an earnest ex-offender to handle print production and make deliveries.) But it’s hard to imagine a company giving someone who violated a fiduciary trust such a position again.
I don’t know what happened to that woman. But I know what happened to Sheila Dixon.
The former mayor of Baltimore violated the public’s trust while in office a decade ago. Now she wants her old job back. She came close to winning the Democratic mayoral primary in 2016 and has launched a new campaign for 2020.
Let’s go back, she says. Let’s return to the way things were before Dixon got caught stealing gift cards. Baltimore had 100 fewer murders per year. Give me another chance, she says, and we will have a better city.
She’s like the accountant who called me from Columbia: She did time for the crime and now feels it’s time for a second chance. It has been 10 years, after all, since Dixon was forced from office.
But, also like the accountant, Dixon faces a hurdle: convincing an employer — in this case, a plurality of the Democratic voters of Baltimore — to trust her again.
For the record: Dixon was convicted in December 2009 of stealing about $500 worth of retail gift cards intended for needy kids. She also entered an Alford plea to a perjury charge. The Alford allowed Dixon to avoid admitting guilt while acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to convict her of failing to disclose lavish gifts from a boyfriend whose company received city tax breaks and contracts. Some of the gifts went back to Dixon’s time as City Council president. The judge who accepted the plea said Dixon would carry a "badge of dishonor" the rest of her life.
Now she wants to rehabilitate or even shake that legacy with another term as mayor.
Is 10 years a long enough exile from elected office?
If the woman from Columbia showed up at a business a decade after being convicted of embezzlement, would she get a job that put her in a position of trust? There are regulations governing this area for some types of businesses, but, at the ground level, I’m going to guess that most employers still would say no.
For one thing, there are many other candidates for such a job who have never run afoul of the law — just as there are several candidates for mayor who have never done a perp walk.
Why would Baltimoreans want to go with Dixon when there are several other candidates with no record? In fact, one candidate, Thiru Vignarajah, was a federal and city prosecutor. Another, T.J. Smith, comes from law enforcement.
Time and timing are important factors in Dixon’s candidacy.
Some, starting with many of the 46,219 Baltimoreans who voted for her in 2016, will say a decade is long enough. They remember the years before her downfall as far better for the city than the last five. They thought Dixon was a good mayor and might give her another chance. People of faith who truly believe in redemption — and there are a lot of those in Baltimore — might vote for Dixon as a way of affirming that belief.
But timing could also work against Dixon.
The primary will be held in late April, almost exactly a year after Pugh’s resignation as a result of the “Healthy Holly” scandal. Is my city going to elect a mayor who broke the public trust a year after a mayor broke the public trust?
Baltimoreans are sick of the crime, corruption and dysfunction of the last few years. To them, reaching back a decade for a mayor who, while competent, violated the public trust probably looks weird or desperate.
Baltimore is weird, that’s for sure. But we are not that desperate; there are other good choices. That, along with voters who never forgive a broken trust and want big change for the city, works against Sheila Dixon’s quest for redemption.