BALTIMORE – Over three months into her term as Baltimore’s unelected mayor, Sheila Dixon has weathered crisis after crisis at what is often called the toughest job in Maryland. A 53-year-old single mother of two, she’ll soon be running for election on her own right in a city known for its bare-knuckle politics.
Yet, says Dixon of her time so far: “Nothing has been really hard. … I live a dull life.”
If true, then a sampling of observers from across Baltimore’s varied political landscape – from community activists to business leaders – are quiet happy to be bored.
“It seems that she’s been extremely successful so far,” said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the politically influential pastor of West Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church. “What she’s proving to people is that experience in office, in dealing with the community, in dealing with the press and various organizations, can make a difference.”
“At this stage in the process, it’s fair to say that the transition has moved relatively smoothly,” said Donald C. Fry, president of the powerful regional business group, the Greater Baltimore Committee.
The transition Fry is talking about is, of course, Dixon’s ascension on Jan. 17 to the top job in this city of 635,000 people. That was when then-mayor Martin O’Malley was sworn in as governor of Maryland and Dixon, then the president of the City Council, automatically became mayor under the city charter.
Though Dixon was already a well-known and well-established political figure at the time, the prospect of her becoming mayor had left many uneasy. Indeed, during the 2006 gubernatorial election there were whispers among city voters that a vote for the popular O’Malley as governor would amount to a vote for a Sheila Dixon administration at City Hall.
Those misgivings were based primarily on two things – ethical questions raised about her behavior as city council president, and a long-ago reputation she had for being divisive and quick with fiery rhetoric.
But even before potential critics had gotten a chance to zero in on the new mayor, Dixon’s handling of the first batch of inevitable urban crises impressed many.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, co-chair of the church-based community activist group known as Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD), “She’s demonstrated a significant amount of political growth as a leader.”
A few weeks after taking office, a bungled live-fire exercise led to the death of apprentice firefighter Racheal M. Wilson. In the public outcry that followed, Dixon moved swiftly to contain the reaction by firing the director of training at the fire academy, and she suspended two others who were deemed negligent in adhering to safety standards.
Next came the stunned public reaction in March when the city police arrested and handcuffed a 7-year-old boy for being on a motorized dirt bike. Dixon promptly issued an apology and, a couple of weeks after the arrest, held a conference with the press and community activists.
“When there is a crisis she’s there coping, not behind closed doors ” said Mary Pat Clarke, a veteran member of the city council. “And that’s impressive to me.”
Dixon’s relatively open administration is quickly becoming a defining aspect of her leadership and has generated enough good will that she largely escaped blame for the city’s predictably dismal performance at snow removal during a storm last winter.
“What I’ve learned is you have to be really transparent and have to deal with the public and get the information out,” Dixon said in a recent interview.
Dixon said she has also “grown and matured” as a public leader.
“I learned you don’t put your emotions on your shoulder,” she said. “I think the other part is you put your ego in your pocket that way you can get more accomplished.”
But all is not sweetness. Just ask city councilman, and rival mayoral candidate, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.
“People are looking for leadership and we haven’t seen that. She has the city in a holding pattern, maintaining the status quo,” Mitchell said.
Another member of the council and sometime political rival, Kenneth N. Harris Sr., gave Dixon a grade of B minus for her performance so far, and said there’s much room for improvement. He said Dixon has spent too much energy on cleaning the streets – a persistent theme in her campaign – when other perennial issues like public safety and education warrant more attention.
“I still think there is more she can be doing in terms of getting a grasp on the climate of the city of Baltimore,” he said.
Dixon’s nearly 20 years in public office have not been without controversy. When she was city council president, The Baltimore Sun reported extensively on apparent conflicts of interest involving a firm that employed her sister, Janice. The paper also disclosed that Janice Dixon was on the public payroll as an employee in Sheila Dixon’s office, a fact which the then-council president was required by law to report but did not.
“I stand by me being very straightforward and cooperative and that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Dixon said.
The public’s first real impression of Dixon probably came 16 years ago, when she was a young member of the city council, and – at least for some whites – she came across as a divisive firebrand. That came at council redistricting meeting when she famously waved a shoe at her white colleagues and said, “You’ve been running things for the last 20 years; now the shoe is on the other foot.”
Dixon said the shoe-waving incident was “misinterpreted,” but acknowledges she gets excited about things that are important to her.
“Do I still get passionate about issues? I do,” she said.
One Dixon initiative that has found widespread support has been the drive to clean the city’s notoriously filthy streets – a centerpiece in her platform for a greener, cleaner, safer Baltimore.
“This has happened before. But I don’t think it has been as far reaching,” said Sen. Verna L. Jones, D-Baltimore, who said the drive has already had a noticeable impact.
The Greater Baltimore Committee’s Fry said while the business community has not yet formed a clear consensus on Dixon, her performance thus far has been viewed positively.
“Part of any challenge with any new chief executive is how quickly they can assemble a team and continue the progress and momentum from the previous administration,” Fry said. “She’s provided continuity.”
Like any mayor, Dixon is a realist and recognizes that she faces problems that have long plagued the city. One challenge that Dixon said was near to her heart was reducing Baltimore’s high rate of violent crime.
She said she’s “disturbed that we’ve come to the point where life is taken so easily.”
“If I can make a difference in one young person’s life to turn around, I think that would be significant,” she said.
By some accounts, Dixon will be a front-runner in the September race. Robert Curran, council vice-president, said Dixon is currently in a “holding pattern for reelection.” “Everything seems to be on course for her reelection right now,” Curran said. “But you never know what tomorrow brings.”