Mayor's supporters underwhelmed by case

Sheila Dixon looks far from finished.

The Baltimore mayor dug in yesterday after being indicted on a dozen counts related to gifts she allegedly received, and the city's political establishment, so far, is standing firmly behind her. Many said they don't see anything in the state prosecutor's 31 pages of charges that would deter Dixon's base of political support - African-American women.

The developers who have fueled Baltimore's renaissance are expected to remain on board, and more affluent city residents may also stick by a mayor who has been seen as successful at reducing crime, improving schools and cleaning up streets and neighborhoods.

"The general opinion is she's done a good job," said Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "Baltimore, until the recession, seemed to be on the brink of recovery ... and people don't want to see that go away. So I think they will stand by her - not just for her, but for the city."

Dixon has built up a store of good will by outperforming expectations as mayor, and that will provide her a cushion from those who might be troubled by the charges, city political observers said. She won the Democratic primary in 2007 with nearly two-thirds of the vote, though no public polling has gauged her standing with voters since then.

"I think everybody agrees she's doing a pretty good job," said political analyst Frank A. DeFilippo. "But that doesn't excuse what's been going on, because some of this is pretty tawdry."

But others were underwhelmed that nearly three years of investigation did not lead to the bribery charges that were widely expected and turned up gifts of a relatively small scale. According to the indictment, the total value of the gifts Dixon accepted or misappropriated is under $25,000. The amount includes clothing, electronics, travel and lodging.

"That's all they've got?" asked Ronald W. Walters, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He said the charges against Dixon didn't approach the level of misconduct alleged against Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, who prosecutors say attempted to sell a U.S. Senate seat.

"We're witnessing a situation going down in Illinois, and this is nowhere near anything like that," Walters said. "The substance of it, on its face, would appear to be minor."

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden publicly stated his support for Dixon yesterday and predicted she would be cleared of all charges. State Sens. Joan Carter Conway and Lisa A. Gladden also backed the mayor. All three are influential leaders in the city's black community, the support of which is essential to Dixon's political survival, experts said. But she needs broader support, including from developers who invest in the city.

"The question is whether the white community in Baltimore will continue to support her or go looking for someone else," Walters said. "That's really the key to this. There is a very strong group there that has to do with mayoral legitimacy. ... If they stay behind her, she's going to be difficult to defeat."

Major developer C. William Struever and Donald C. Fry, head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, declined to comment.

There's no question the indictment will be a distraction for Dixon, Crenson said. Questions about Dixon's ethics have been raised by the media for years and were well-known when she was elected in 2007. But an indictment brings those doubts into stark relief.

"Unarticulated suspicions are now down in black and white," Crenson said. "So the attention is going to be focused on certain aspects of her past behavior, and that's got to impair her ability to function, and she's got to prepare her defense, which is going to take a lot of time."

Development slowed in Detroit when Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted on eight felony counts and caught up in various scandals involving the use of city funds. He resigned in September as part of a deal in which he pleaded guilty to two felonies.

"The mayor's indictment was a major distraction for the city, and it seemed to essentially neutralize the mayor in terms of any initiatives that might have been undertaken," said John E. Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. While that city faces problems beyond its mayor, such as the collapse of the auto industry, Kilpatrick's troubles disappointed civic and corporate leaders in the region.

"The city is troubled in the case of Detroit, and its revitalization depends on the confidence of private investors," Mogk said. "As the mayor loses his control and focus, it's a chilling effect on investors. They tend to back off."

The charges against Dixon, though, are underwhelming given that the investigation took nearly three years and combed through so much of the City Council's business, said Larry Gibson, a professor at the University of Maryland law school and former U.S. associate deputy attorney general.

"Considering how long the investigation has gone and how comprehensive it has been, it almost gives Baltimore government close to a clean bill of health," Gibson said. "If this is the totality of the believed criminal conduct that they have come across, it's pretty minuscule."

A top official's indictment can have a range of effects, depending on how accustomed a city is to corruption, said Donald Kettl, a professor and former director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, the FBI revealed just weeks before the 2003 mayoral election that it had wiretapped Mayor John F. Street's office as part of a corruption investigation.

But instead of generating suspicion, the news made Street, a Democrat, look like the victim of a politically motivated investigation. He cruised to re-election.

"It created a sense of him as a victim," Kettl said. But the endless controversies also left voters fed up with the status quo and created an opening for a reform-minded candidate to be elected mayor in 2007.

Gladden, a public defender who represents Baltimore in the General Assembly, said she doesn't believe Dixon must step down. She noted that "you're innocent until proven guilty" and that much of the alleged wrongdoing happened when Dixon was City Council president, before being elected mayor.

"The challenge is going to be keeping the momentum for Baltimore moving forward," Gladden said, as she watched a breaking television report on the indictment and her phone rang repeatedly. "Baltimore is on an upswing. We're doing great except for our murder rate this year. A cleaner, greener, healthier and safer city, that's what she's about. I love what she stands for. I'm just disappointed we're here."

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.