A master politican finds a new arena to play in

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January 28, 1996|By BRIAN SULLAM

BY BECOMING state treasurer, Carroll County's most skillful politician is taking his leave of electoral politics. But don't think Richard Dixon is abandoning his calling.

No, he has merely changed leagues.

Instead of plying his trade with 187 other legislators in the General Assembly, Mr. Dixon will be dealing with the two other members of the Maryland Board of Public Works: Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. He will use the same quiet proficiency in counting and gathering votes that enabled him to rise in the General Assembly and wield considerable power. Instead of dealing with the wide range of legislative issues, his focus will be narrowed to the state's fiscal matters.

A great deal has been made of the fact that Mr. Dixon is a black Democrat who has been able to get elected and re-elected from a district that is among the most conservative in the state.

Not 'Louie' country

Last election, the magnitude of this accomplishment was clear to see. In every Carroll County race except Mr. Dixon's, Democrats took a shellacking. Even Mr. Goldstein, Maryland's political equivalent of the Energizer bunny, could muster only 47.3 percent of Carroll's electorate to vote for him.

Viewed in the context of the county's dislike of Democrats, Mr. Dixon's continued success at the polls is even more remarkable. While his electoral success is a testament to his skill in reading and responding to Carroll's prickly electorate, his real accomplishment has been his ability to garner power.

While it is true that Mr. Dixon has been very careful in amassing a conservative voting record in Annapolis, his legislative career is more than just following his constituents' conservative dictates.

In this era where politicians are constantly trying to properly position themselves on hot-button issues such as gun control, abortion, taxes and government regulation, Mr. Dixon saw his duty as passing legislation to benefit his constituents.

To accomplish his goals in Annapolis, he needed 51 percent of his fellow legislators to agree with him.

In his four terms in the House of Delegates, he became very good at rounding up those votes. He could wheel and deal, negotiate and compromise when necessary. As a result he often brought home the legislative bacon for Carroll, a county that the Democratic-controlled General Assembly could easily have ignored.

Mr. Dixon acknowledged and accepted there was a trade-off for getting things done. Idealism and principle had to take a back seat to rounding up votes. He also had to maintain a low profile on a number of issues that he might have cared about.

Even though he is a prominent black legislator with considerable seniority, he did not join the General Assembly's Black Caucus. Nor did he make any effort to line himself up with issues that are popular with blacks. For example, last session, he didn't vote for legislation that would have increased the amount of state contracts set aside for minority businesses.

Being the financial consultant he is, Mr. Dixon crunched the numbers and concluded that marching in lockstep with other black legislators wasn't in his political interest. Not only would it alienate him from voters in Carroll -- which has about a 3 percent minority population -- it wouldn't help him with the legislative leadership. By keeping his word and maneuvering adroitly behind the scenes, Mr. Dixon built up a reputation as a man who could be counted on and could get things done.

Mr. Dixon's willingness to follow rather than fight House leadership enabled him to get a seat on the appropriations committee. From that position, he was able to gather votes to support capital projects for Carroll.

His refusal to be pigeon-holed as a black legislator may have cost him. A number of black legislators voted for Pauline Menes, a delegate from Prince George's County, as state treasurer because her voting record was more in keeping with theirs.

In the end, it didn't matter. He was able to assemble more votes from other delegates and senators than he needed. And, as in the past, his count was good. He was swept into office by a 134-54 margin.

Not all politicians follow Mr. Dixon's example. They would much rather grandstand. But in the end, those politicians usually don't have much to show in actual accomplishments.

Clarifying 'frenzy'

In last week's column, I said in the aftermath of the great blizzard of 1996 that the city of Westminster's police officers and meter maids went into a parking ticket writing frenzy.

Mayor Kenneth Yowan called to say I was wrong. In reality, only two parking tickets had been written between Jan. 8 and Jan. 14. I am taking the mayor at his word and will concede I may have overstated the case.

Nevertheless, I find it extraordinary that that I got one of those tickets and ran into the person who got the other one.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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