Hope for the Democrats

February 01, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- Today at Morgan State University, Del. Richard Dixon of Carroll County will be sworn in as the next treasurer of the state of Maryland. The ceremony itself will be routine, but it has fascinating implications for the state in general and the Democratic Party in particular.

Maryland treasurers are elected by the legislature, and while the office is important, treasurers traditionally keep a low profile. But Mr. Dixon, a four-term Democrat, has the potential to become, almost overnight, one of Maryland's best-known and most interesting public officials. And in no way is this more apparent than in the striking contrast he makes with Gov. Parris Glendening, who will swear him in.

At a time when Republicanism is on the rise all across rural and suburban Maryland, Mr. Dixon's political career has flourished. Before resigning his seat in the House to become treasurer, he was Carroll County's only remaining elected Democrat. Those who know him well say he could carry it again easily, and probably other counties too.

Business background

Obviously this suggests that he's more conservative, culturally and philosophically, than most of those who currently represent his party in elective office. His Carroll County roots go back for generations. He's a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, and he has a master's degree in business administration from Morgan.

He's a former Army officer who received the Bronze Star for valor while serving with the elite 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He belongs to the National Rifle Association, and doesn't mind saying so. His great-great-grandfather fought with the Union Army. He's a family man. He believes in tax cuts, spending restraints and fiscal stability.

Scattered across non-metropolitan Maryland are plenty of besieged Democrats who would love to have Richard Dixon campaign with them some day. Mr. Glendening, however, lost their counties in 1994 and is probably even less popular there now than he was then. Today rural Democrats shrink from him as though he wore a tutu, or were surnamed Clinton.

Richard Dixon grew up, he recalls, ''being around hard-working people who tried to live right and do the right things.'' He means people like his father, who worked two jobs while he was raising a family, and his mother. Carroll County respects those values too.

After the 1990 election, in which he lost Carroll and a dozen other counties besides, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer complained to Mr. Dixon that he hadn't received the support he deserved. He didn't assail ''redneck Carroll,'' as others have, but the implication was clear that only ignorance could explain the election returns.

''I had to remind him,'' said Mr. Dixon, ''that Carroll voted for Hoover, Landon, Willkie and Dewey over Franklin Roosevelt, and that he shouldn't take it personally.'' He politely didn't tell the governor that Carroll had concluded after his first term that he was just another tax-and-spend urban Democrat.

Since Mr. Dixon's election as treasurer, it has come to the attention of the greater Maryland political world that in addition to being fiscally prudent and culturally conservative he is also, well, black. This is a minor bombshell. How could he then be so politically successful in redneck Carroll?

Mr. Dixon finds the question mildly amusing, but many in Carroll County find it grossly insulting. One such is Charles Smelser, a former Democratic state senator who represented Carroll for many years and was the first to encourage Mr. Dixon to get into politics.

Race is irrelevant, the retired senator snaps; Mr. Dixon got re-elected three times because he represented his constituents so well. And as for his selection as state treasurer, ''I'm as pleased he has the job as I could possibly be.'' To make sure Mr. Dixon got it, Mr. Smelser even went to Annapolis to lobby his old legislative pals.

The state treasurer is probably most influential when sitting as the General Assembly's representative on the Board of Public Works, along with the governor and the state comptroller. The three-member board approves the expenditure of the state's bond money, most major contracts and state real-estate transactions. Its meetings are public, and more than one questionable or controversial project has been derailed there. So even though policy-making opportunities are few, an independent and alert treasurer can find a useful role in state government.

Often in the past, Maryland treasurers have been senior people who were chosen late in their careers. Richard Dixon is different. If the state's Democratic Party has its wits about it, it's already hoping that his career in public service won't end with the office he enters today.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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