Treasurer used to high-wire act Dixon's conservative record split his fellow African-Americans

January 28, 1996|By Marina Sarris

FOR RICHARD N. Dixon, walking a tightrope between race and politics is nothing new.

Back home in his Carroll County district, which is heavily Republican and 98 percent white, the African-American delegate could arouse suspicion just by being listed as a member of the General Assembly's Black Caucus.

In Annapolis, he raised eyebrows among some blacks when he "took a walk" -- or abstained from voting -- on a major affirmative action bill.

So it is not surprising that the Democrat found himself embroiled in racial politics last week in his successful bid to become treasurer of the state.

While some African-Americans championed the opportunity to put the first black in that high-profile job, others compared the conservative Mr. Dixon to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

For many, his candidacy raised fundamental questions of race and ideology, and of how to advance black interests in the 1990s.

So divided were some blacks, and so strong were the feelings, that Mr. Dixon felt compelled to justify his racial identity.

'Not really black'?

"There are people who have made comments that I'm not really black," he told the Legislative Black Caucus. He listed his racial resume: his education at segregated schools and a historically black university, his contributions to the black community, his membership in black organizations.

But still there were doubts. He distanced himself from the Black Caucus -- especially after his name somehow appeared on a membership list. He didn't support a 1995 affirmative action bill. He opposed a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for Carroll schoolchildren years ago (because, he said, students should be in class learning about the civil rights leader). His political godfather in the treasurer's race was the House speaker, a white Democrat. And Republican delegates unanimously endorsed him.

Some black politicians wondered: Was it better to break a racial barrier by supporting a black conservative who doesn't share their views or to elevate a white liberal who does?

The question was not an academic one. Mr. Dixon's opponent, Del. Pauline H. Menes, is a white liberal who has supported civil rights and affirmative action for three decades.

Mrs. Menes promoted her record when a caucus member asked her, during an interview, why the group should choose her over an African-American.

The question of race versus ideology also was inherent in the comparisons of Mr. Dixon to Justice Thomas.

"Many of the people who are in favor of Richard Dixon said we should vote for him because he's African-American," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a black Prince George's County Democrat. "But what I'm saying is, we have to support people who share our interests."

Some blacks put aside their doubts about Clarence Thomas' conservative record in order to put an African-American on the Supreme Court, he said. But once ensconced, Justice Thomas proceeded to vote against them.

Frank L. Morris Sr., retired dean of graduate studies and research at Morgan State University, said he believes blacks learned from the Thomas mistake.

"There shouldn't be any doubt, when the interests of the black community are involved, that voting record and commitment and ideology should always rise above race," the political scientist said.

The Maryland NAACP agreed. It cited Mrs. Menes' superior (from its point of view) voting record when it threw its weight behind the former economist.

'Vote for the brother'

But the Black Caucus ultimately embraced Mr. Dixon's candidacy, if only by a narrow margin. "Vote for the brother. Vote for the brother," one member urged. In the end, 19 supported Mr. Dixon, while 14 sided with Mrs. Menes.

Many caucus members are savvy political veterans, Mr. Morris said, and would not have supported Mr. Dixon without obtaining some assurance that he will back them as treasurer. "If there were no assurances, both personally and collectively, that Dixon would represent the interests of the black community without question, then they've made a great mistake in supporting him," he said.

Mr. Dixon did promise to reflect the broader constituency of the legislature if elected treasurer, just as he voted the wishes of his conservative district while a delegate. And while he didn't vote for a 1995 law that increased state business for minority contractors, he said he would support its enforcement in his new post.

Whether those public assurances were enough is a matter of opinion. But for some black leaders, Mr. Dixon's voting record was secondary to his resume. He has been a stockbroker for 26 years, has a master's degree in finance, and has chaired a budget subcommittee in Annapolis.

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights leader, said: "The vote should have been about his qualifications. To give the litmus test of whether or not he voted with the caucus was not appropriate given the job he was seeking."

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