Dixon's drive calls her to lead

`Fighter' feels ready for City Council helm

October 26, 1999|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Sheila Dixon can't stand for things to be out of order.

Not in her Hunting Ridge home, not in her office on Redwood Street. Nowhere.

So a few weeks ago when she saw some old mattresses and a chest of drawers blocking traffic on Edmondson Avenue, she whipped out her cellular telephone and called a city department she thought would quickly remove the trash.

The runaround she got only intensified her desire to put things in order in Baltimore, a city she has lived in all of her life. A city that she knows is, in some respects, out of order.

If Dixon, 45, successfully defeats Republican opponent Antonio Wade Campbell in the race for City Council president, she promises to help push through laws that might start putting Baltimore back in shape.

Dixon said she'd like to see the council and mayor address several areas, including the city's high crime rate, its shrinking population, drug addiction and the tens of thousands of abandoned houses and vacant lots that make parts of the city eyesores and attract drug dealers.

She knows the 19-member council faces numerous challenges, but says she's up to the task if elected to the $65,000-a-year president's post -- the only full-time City Council job.

"I think my track record over the past 12 years has demonstrated that I can lead the City Council into the next millennium," said Dixon, who was first elected to the council in 1987.

"I was born and raised in Baltimore. I know the pulse of Baltimore. I have been involved in many aspects of city government so I don't now have to go and learn the process. I can keep moving forward," Dixon said.

Dixon helped pass legislation banning advertising of alcohol and tobacco products in the city's neighborhoods. And she has worked diligently to improve schools and on issues affecting senior citizens.

Dixon, who met yesterday with 30 youth leaders from around the country at the city's Living Classrooms Maritime Institute, has been a strong supporter of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke since she took office, often being labeled a "rubber stamp" for his legislation.

She resents the label and said she and the mayor sometimes disagree but they communicate well. It's more productive, she says, "to talk it out, not hash it out."

Her opponent sees her relationship with Schmoke differently.

"Although she has had 12 years on the council, Mrs. Dixon hasn't really said anything about the problems that are facing our community," said Campbell, who teaches music at several private and religious schools. "Crime, drugs, education, economic development. She has basically voted for every idea that Kurt Schmoke had, and our city has paid for it."

Campbell said Dixon lacks the leadership skills Baltimore needs and doesn't know how to work well with others. "I think she's shown in the past that it's her way or the highway," he said.

Schmoke scoffs at that characterization, saying Dixon has "really grown and matured as a government official in the past decade."

He attributed part of her growth to her job as senior trade representative with the Maryland Department or Business and Economic Development, where she has worked for nearly 14 years.

If elected, Dixon said she plans to continue working for the state, at least part time. She would suffer too huge a pay cut if she quit outright, she said.

"She recognizes the importance of good government in creating a better economic climate in the community," Schmoke said. "And, I must say, as a wife and a mother, she is extremely sensitive to the needs of working families in this city. I think she's going to be an excellent council president, and I think she's a good listener and will implement ideas she gets from others as well as good ideas that are her own."

Former City Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham concurs.

"She has really learned, particularly from the mistakes" of former council presidents, Cunningham said. "You can't control everyone and everyone's thoughts and mold it to your agenda."

Dixon defends her ability to work with others. She said she has met with many City Council members and Democratic mayoral nominee Martin O'Malley.

"Sheila and I have voted differently on many issues, but we have always maintained a good relationship," O'Malley said. "I think both of us are anxious to get in there and create a new day."

O'Malley noted Dixon's "straightforward and direct" style, saying he likes it because a person always knows where she stands.

Dixon doesn't apologize for her bluntness, but said she could benefit from a different approach.

"I'm very passionate, and I'm very straightforward and sometimes people have a problem with that," she said. "It's not that I want to change that per se, but I think I can probably semantically work on some other words to use in expressing the same point."

What haunts her most, she said, is a memorable gesture during a City Council debate on redistricting in March 1991. Dixon removed one of her shoes, waved it at white colleagues and said: "Now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it."

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