Dixon, in run for council president, puts shoe-banging incident in different light

October 10, 1999|By Michael Olesker

SHEILA DIXON is stuck on a single tick of the clock. The years go by, but a community's perception holds her in this awful instant, and is chilled by the memory of her famously waving a shoe and becoming a public heel.

The Baltimore City Council was drawing lines in the sand then, allegedly about redistricting, but really about race. The council chambers were packed, and voices were raised, and Dixon took off one of her shoes, waved it about and pounded a table and, in a shrill voice, cried, "The shoe is on the other foot now."

She aimed this gesture at white members of the council, and she was symbolizing, in that phrase, in that raw gesture, not only the changed racial demographics of the city and those who run its government, but the irrationality and opportunism on both sides that sometimes accompanies such changes.

And, a decade after the fact, Dixon -- the West Baltimore councilwoman and now Democratic nominee for president of the City Council -- knows there are many in this city who have never forgotten the incident, and never forgiven her for it.

"And it's haunted me," Dixon said last week.

"Pardon me?" she was asked.

"It's haunted me," she said again.

In a decade, she has never outgrown the image of a woman who lost control, an antagonist when diplomacy was needed. And now, with the city about to change leadership, and with a white mayor taking over, questions have arisen: Could Dixon and Martin O'Malley, the front runners for the top two offices, co-exist?

And, does the moment with the shoe represent the real Sheila Dixon?

"No," she says. "It's not me in how it was presented. And what I said was based on frustration."

She says that hurtful, bigoted epithets had been spoken by a white colleague minutes earlier in closed council session, "fighting words, like talking about somebody's mother." She didn't hear the remarks herself, Dixon says, but another colleague passed them on to her.

"I was so angry that I was gonna take off my shoe and smack [the white colleague] in the head," Dixon says. "And the [TV] cameras were on me and I caught myself, and [Councilwoman] Vera Hall came over and said, `It's not worth it.' And that's when I banged the shoe on the table."

She says she attempted to explain the gesture to a reporter later that day, but the reporter "didn't want to hear." In the ensuing decade, no further attempts were made to explain her side of it.

"And what it has done," Dixon said now, "is paint people's view of me in parts of the city. When I campaigned this summer, people said, `Tell me about the shoe.' I had doors shut in my face because of the shoe, and people were very bitter to me.

"[State Sen.] Barbara Hoffman asked about it. [Former Mayor] Don Schaefer asked about it. Places like Locust Point, which I'd never had contact with, and Hampden. The best thing was, people who pre-judged me, once they began to work with me in those neighborhoods, their perception of me as a racist, they saw me for who I was, and we developed a good relationship in those areas."

Her implication is: She wants to put racial divisions behind us. In last month's primary, Dixon got 58 percent of the Democratic vote. Much has been made of the black crossover vote for Martin O'Malley, but a 58-percent Dixon vote indicates she must have attracted some white support from those who have moved past the shoe, or forgotten it, or never knew about it.

"Probably a combination of all three," she says. "Look, the real Sheila Dixon is not one who wants to dwell on racial differences. I would not have been able to pass major legislation in this council if my focus was on that. I would not have been able to service my constituents.

"I spent my childhood in a mixed environment. I went to Northwest High School when there was very good rapport between blacks and whites. You had your group you hung with, but there was excellent interaction which helped me when I went to Towson State to college."

Four years after the last racially divisive mayoral campaign, there are considerable signs that city residents have had enough of such tactics. Dixon knows it.

"We took our campaign to people who didn't know me," she said last week. "I ran on the idea that everybody's at the table and has a piece of what's going on. We have to be inclusive.

"It means we have a growing Latino community that has not had a voice and been part of the community, and a large Korean community that has not been part of the process, and African-Americans shut out economically."

She says she wants everyone at the table now. She wants to be unstuck from that moment with the shoe, when a reputation was created that needs, finally, to be left behind.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.