Dixon showed her toughness in D.C. contest

November 08, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When District of Columbia mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon first started wooing supporters back in 1988, she'd invite them to lunch and ask for their advice on what she could do to wage a successful campaign.

Mark Plotkin had a simple answer:

"Start saying hello to people."

"She's not a very gregarious person," Mr. Plotkin, news director of WAMU-FM, who served with Ms. Dixon for five years on the executive committee of the D.C. Democratic Party, says today.

And indeed, her smile may have beamed from ward to ward Tuesday night as she sailed into the mayoral post with a sweeping 86 percent of the vote and a promise to "clean house," but friends and family say such ebullience is rare for the home-grown lawyer and former utility company executive.

"During the campaign, we kept having to remind her, 'Sharon, smile,' " says Patrice White, her personal secretary of 10 years. "It's just her natural inclination not to smile. She's a thinker, a very serious person."

But that tough, serious nature, coupled with a sharp, strident tongue -- she was the first to condemn Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. and described her three D.C. Council member competitors as "three blind mice" -- secured for Ms. Dixon her first elected public office and turned her long-shot candidacy into what some have called a "Cinderella story."

"It took incredible guts to take on the established heavyweight politicians in town and tell them off in no uncertain terms," says Carl Rowan Jr., a lawyer and former John Ray campaign staffer.

"She's all business. As tough as she can be."

A petite, stylish woman -- a third-generation Washingtonian and graduate of D.C. public schools, Howard University and its law school -- Ms. Dixon, 46, left her $140,000-a-year job as vice president for public policy at Potomac Electric Power Co. last year in pursuit of the city's top position.

"I think she thought she could make a difference," says Ron Walters, political science professor at Howard University.

Early on, she faced a horde of veteran Democratic politicians, including Mayor Barry, and had very little funding. Her political experience ranked mostly at the national level -- she'd been treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and D.C. committeewoman to the DNC.

Ms. Dixon, who is divorced from former D.C. Council Chairman Arrington L. Dixon, cast herself as a political fresh face, surrounded herself by young staffers and volunteers -- "not the Marion Barry crowd of seasoned politicians," says Mr. Walters -- and vowed to shake up and clean up the fiscally and socially ailing city.

"I think she wrote a script for herself that said, 'I'm going to win.' And she believed it," says Lynn Cutler, vice chairman of the DNC.

"She never wavered in her belief," says Ms. Dixon's sister, Benaree Wiley, director of admissions at Harvard Law School.

Even as a child, says Ms. Wiley, her older sister "had a strong seriousness of purpose. She always took things seriously."

When she was 12, for instance, Sharon decided she wanted to be an actress and started reading Shakespearean plays.

"She'd wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me to be her one-person audience," says Ms. Wiley.

Before that, the bookish and athletic young child decided she wanted to be a professional baseball player. "People would tell her, 'You can't be a baseball player. You're a girl,' " her sister recalls. "She'd say, 'Why not?' She always had that spirit of 'why not?' "

Some of that spirit comes from her upbringing, say those who know her.

When Sharon was 4, her mother died of breast cancer. The two young sisters were raised largely by their father, retired D.C. Superior Court Judge Carlisle E. Pratt, along with a grandmother and an aunt.

"We were made to feel we could do anything we wanted to if we just stayed focused and gave it 100 percent," says Ms. Wiley.

She was class president in high school and the first woman to run, albeit unsuccessfully, for president of the student council at Howard University.

In 1984, she ran for the chairmanship of the DNC, only to drop out at the last minute and instead become treasurer.

When she campaigned for mayor, after 13 years as a PEPCO executive, opponents doubted that the slick businesswoman and mother of two college-age daughters could appeal to the city's poor.

"She is of a different class," says Mr. Walters. But he believes she has bridged the "class gap" by surrounding herself with young people.

Now, however, she faces a greater challenge.

"She invented herself as a political outsider, and the public bought it," says Mr. Plotkin. "Now she has to be an insider."

Describing what he calls "the Jimmy Carter syndrome," he explains that Ms. Dixon "presents the facts but doesn't realize a lot of romancing has to be done. The public liked that, but politicians aren't going to enjoy it."

Mr. Rowan, in fact, only half jokes when he suggests that, because of her bold, outspoken style, a style that has made few friends in the "establishment" here, "Had she not won the election, she would have had to look for a place to relocate to."

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