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Sheila Dixon knows the pandemic could hurt her run for Baltimore mayor. Can she still win?

In her third mayoral race ― after a landslide victory, a public disgrace and a narrow, tainted defeat ― Sheila Dixon occupies an unusual space in an unusual election in Baltimore history. Dixon answers a question Jan. 25 during a Greater Baltimore Urban League forum at Morgan State University.
In her third mayoral race ― after a landslide victory, a public disgrace and a narrow, tainted defeat ― Sheila Dixon occupies an unusual space in an unusual election in Baltimore history. Dixon answers a question Jan. 25 during a Greater Baltimore Urban League forum at Morgan State University.(Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)

Third in a series of articles about candidates for mayor.

Sheila Dixon was on a tear.

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In the somewhat surreal era of campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic, the former mayor used this week’s NAACP debate via videoconference to imply a rival was inappropriately collecting pension money. Then she accused another opponent of being a hypocrite and a third of being ineffective.

But when the time came to hit back, the other candidates largely demurred ― choosing to attack one another instead. Some deferentially referred to Dixon as “the mayor" and complimented her on successes in office, including a plan to reduce homelessness.

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In her third mayoral race ― after a landslide victory, a public disgrace and a narrow, tainted defeat ― Dixon now occupies an unusual space in an unusual election in Baltimore history.

The new coronavirus has upended the race for mayor and rendered irrelevant Dixon’s strength at retail politics. For weeks, she has complained that the state’s move to a mostly mail-in primary will suppress turnout among the black voters who make up her base.

Though she led nearly every pre-pandemic poll in the race, her opponents now rarely treat her as the front-runner. For instance, as seen in Monday’s event, they often avoid bothering to attack her. Whole debates go by without anyone bringing up a corruption case that drove her from office.

With few attacks coming her way, Dixon, a confident public speaker, uses the online forums to tout crime reductions and cleanup efforts from her stint as mayor from 2007 to 2010.

Dixon’s candidacy now presents a fundamental question: Is Dixon a front-runner, as earlier polling suggested? Or has COVID-19 ― which turned the race from door-knocking and rallies to video ads ― reduced her chances?

“One should never underestimate Sheila Dixon’s grassroots support and organizing capabilities,” said Lenneal J. Henderson, emeritus professor of public affairs at the University of Baltimore. “One of her strengths has been garnering support from the historically lower-socioeconomic black communities. The crisis has interrupted that. She can’t get to the mass faith base in the way she could previously. But she can still organize in other ways.”

Dixon led a Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore-WYPR-FM poll in March and has been among the leaders in other polls.

But she says the coronavirus outbreak likely hurts her more than other candidates.

“I think a mail-in election is going to be very detrimental to the African American community,” she says.

Nevertheless, Dixon has a strategy to win. She’s long had an unshakable base of support, particularly on Baltimore’s west side. She knows several other candidates are fighting among themselves for the support of white voters.

So Dixon knows what to do: Turn out her base.

“We have a strategy to activate our base supporters,” said Kevin Seymore, Dixon’s campaign manager. “We are targeting communities where people have supported the mayor through three decades of public service.”

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Before the pandemic, that meant a robust door-knocking operation. In a single Saturday, Dixon and her supporters knocked on 1,000 doors in Cherry Hill. During the pandemic, the former mayor has had to rely on other methods, such as an SUV that pumps Dixon’s voice into neighborhoods from a bullhorn, mailings, Facebook Live and internet videos. One video features Dixon, a fitness buff who received a black belt in karate, engaging in an intense outdoor workout.

Dixon’s pitch is straightforward. She argues her reputation as a competent city manager and success at decreasing the homicide rate should outweigh the scandal that forced her from office.

Ten years after Dixon was found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for the poor, she’s hoping Baltimoreans are willing to forgive her. As part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge in the case, she resigned as mayor, was on probation for four years and could not seek office during that time.

“I constantly apologize,” Dixon said in a recent interview. “You hope and pray there will be some people who will be forgiving.”

She has attempted a comeback before. In 2016, Dixon lost a Democratic mayoral primary to then-state Sen. Catherine Pugh in a close race that has since been tainted by allegations of financial wrongdoing by Pugh’s campaign. Pugh resigned last year as mayor due to her own corruption scandal involving the sale of self-published children’s books. Bernard C. “Jack” Young, the council president, was elevated to mayor.

As Dixon speaks with voters, she says many are still mostly concerned with Baltimore’s high rate of violent crime.

During Dixon’s years as mayor, from 2007 to 2010, homicides in Baltimore dropped from 282 to 238, and the violent crime rate went down each year. Arrests declined from a high fed by “zero-tolerance” policies under her predecessor, Democrat Martin O’Malley. Shortly after taking office, Dixon appointed a police commissioner from within the department who emphasized targeted arrests of violent shooters instead.

For the past five years, Baltimore has had more than 300 homicides annually. Dixon pledges that if she returns to office, she will reduce crime, make smart hires in government and clean up the city with better performance from agencies.

Former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said Dixon hired talented agency heads and let them do their jobs without micromanagement. She kept him on after taking over as mayor in 2007 when O’Malley became governor.

Sharfstein said he credits Dixon with helping ramp up a Safe Streets violence interruption program that contributed to a decline in crime.

“I loved working for her,” Sharfstein said. “I thought she was a great mayor for health.”

Sharfstein recalled he could rely on Dixon’s political skills.

“I had tried my best to get the smoking ban passed and I had just assumed it would fail,” he said. “Mayor Dixon called me and said, ‘You should come over.’ And I watched as council members, who had looked me in the eye and said they wouldn’t do it, voted for it.” The ban, passed in 2007, barred smoking in all public places in the city.

Sister Helen Amos, former chairwoman of the Leadership Advisory Group for Baltimore’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, praised Dixon for having bold ideas.

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“Everybody would say, ‘You aren’t going to end homelessness,’ ” Amos recalls. “But it was the right vision. No one should be living on the street. If you don’t set the right vision, you’re definitely not going to reach it.”

Twenty-four Democrats filed to run for mayor, but polls show only six gained traction with the electorate: Dixon, Young, former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller, City Council President Brandon Scott, former police spokesman T.J. Smith and former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah.

Seven Republicans and one unaffiliated candidate also have filed to run.

In deep-blue Baltimore, the Democratic primary has traditionally determined the outcome of the mayor’s race, which this year is being conducted mostly by mail to help control the spread of COVID-19. Ballots are in the mail to city voters; they must be postmarked no later than the date of the June 2 primary.

Henderson said he doesn’t believe the mail-in election will necessarily harm Dixon worse than other candidates. He points to Kweisi Mfume’s landslide victory in the recent congressional special election, and notes Mfume and Dixon share a similar base of voters.

Dixon says she almost didn’t run again this time, but couldn’t stand watching the city run down the wrong track. She called a family meeting at a restaurant last year and broached the topic for debate with her adult daughter and college-age son.

“My daughter felt why do I want to go through everything I went through,” Dixon says. “My son was like, ‘Go for it, Mom. We’re with you.’” Ultimately, Dixon says, they agreed: “If I’m able to handle it, they’re with me.”

Coming next: Bernard C. “Jack” Young

Sheila Dixon

Age: 66

Experience: Marketing director, Maryland Minority Contractors Association (2010-present); mayor (2007-2010); City Council president (1999-2007); council member (1987-1999); international trade specialist, Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development; adult education instructor, Head Start; kindergarten teacher, Steuart Hill Elementary School

Education: Northwestern High; bachelor’s degree, Towson State; master’s degree, Johns Hopkins University

Family: Divorced, mother of two

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