Democrat Dixon for council president

September 01, 1999

AMONG Democrats, Councilwoman SHEILA DIXON is The Sun's choice for City Council president. In three terms representing West Baltimore's 4th District, she has shown steady growth and maturity that warrant her nomination to a leadership position.

Her chief rival, Nathan C. Irby Jr., has solid credentials as a former state senator and councilman. He would do a good job, just as he is doing now as the liquor board administrator.

We chose Ms. Dixon for one overriding reason: The political theatrics of the past few months have shown what happens when a mayor fails to develop future leadership through mentoring. Never again should Baltimore have to suffer the indignities of not having enough qualified aspirants for high municipal offices. A purposeful cultivation of new leaders must be started to prevent repetition of this situation.

At 45, Ms. Dixon is at a critical juncture in her political career. She is still hungry, ready to take on the world.

In contrast, Mr. Irby, at 67, is approaching the end of his political career. As a result, he probably would be a more docile City Council president than Ms. Dixon, whose supporters see her as a future mayoral candidate.

In Baltimore's strong-mayor municipal government, the City Council president's job has often served as a training and testing ground for aspiring chief executives. William Donald Schaefer and Thomas J. D'Alesandro III used the post as a launching pad for mayoral careers. So did Clarence H. "Du" Burns, who filled an unexpired term.

A number of others never made it to the No. 1 job. Walter S. Orlinsky, serving under a popular mayor, grew frustrated and ended up disgracing himself in a bribery scandal. Four years ago, Mary Pat Clarke thought she could unseat Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. She failed.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III is now taking aim at the city's highest office. With no incumbent in this year's election for the first time in 28 years, he sees himself as the logical successor to Mr. Schmoke and says he has the training. Voters will decide.

If anything, the decline of political clubs and powerful machines has increased the importance of the City Council president's job as a training ground. The president is the only elected municipal official with legislative and executive responsibilities.

Presiding over the 18-member City Council, the city's No. 2 official sets the tone for that legislative body, particularly through appointments to committee chairmanships. The president also determines what kind of relationship the council has with the mayor. The president chairs the Board of Estimates, a five-member executive committee that is otherwise controlled by the mayor. The president is the only other elected official in a position to have a full picture of the city's affairs.

Ms. Dixon and Mr. Irby would approach the City Council president's job similarly. Because of the city's heavy dependence on state and federal funding, both see an increasingly important role for the president as a liaison to Annapolis and Washington. This is a function the current president has not performed.

Because she is on the City Council, Ms. Dixon has a better handle on the strengths and weaknesses of city government's performance. She wants to review city laws to rid the books of unnecessary ordinances.

She also advocates major changes in the way the Department of Public Works functions. On the other hand, she is cautious about suggestions that the reforms of Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier should be abandoned.

"I think we haven't given him the opportunity to deliver," she says. Ms. Dixon would retain the Police Athletic League revived by Mr. Frazier.

Four other Democrats are running for the City Council president's job. Among them is Frank M. Conaway, a perennial candidate who last year was elected to the Circuit Court clerk's position, and Shelton J. Stewart, a former sheriff who has been convicted of a felony.

Democratic voters would be wise to nominate Sheila Dixon.

The primary winner will face Republican Antonio Wade Campbell in November.

Pub Date: 09/01/99

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