State treasurer takes job beyond the numbers

Former paratrooper doesn't hesitate to challenge governor

November 05, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland has a wonderful state treasurer in Richard N. Dixon.

Just ask him.

"I'm the most qualified treasurer in the country. And as I talk to my fellow treasurers, it's clear I'm the most powerful," Dixon says.

Son of a janitor and a product of segregated schools, Dixon first drew notice in Annapolis as a member of the House of Delegates.

He impressed people with his knowledge of the budget -- and with his style, tooling around in a red Corvette, smoking cigars and wearing a mink overcoat.

But the former Army paratrooper and stockbroker from Carroll County seems to have found his calling as Maryland's chief financial steward.

And in his fourth year in office, he has emerged as a key state player, thanks to his seat on the Maryland Board of Public Works -- a position he has used to thwart Gov. Parris N. Glendening on issues ranging from the future of the Intercounty Connector to the location of a police training center.

Confident and blunt-spoken, Dixon brings the right blend of financial expertise and political skills to the treasurer's job, observers say.

"Richard Dixon is no shrinking violet when it comes to declaring his position on anything," marvels House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "That's one of his assets."

Maryland treasurers -- elected by the 188 members of the General Assembly -- have generally stayed out of sight, kept track of state funds and deferred to the governor on policy matters.

Not Dixon.

Last year, for example, he distributed an annual report for his office that included a couple of unorthodox entries -- 25-year-old newspaper clippings detailing the unethical investment practices of one of his predecessors.

"He was ripping us off, big time," Dixon says matter-of-factly.

Convinced the state could do more with its money, he has brought in new advisers to help manage investments, steered business to minority-owned banks, and balanced accounts for what he says was the first time in years, "finding" $4.7 million in the process.

Daily earnings reports

A stickler for details, he has his staff prepare a report each morning showing exactly how much money the state earned on its overnight investments. He will proudly provide the figure to anyone who asks.

"No other treasurer could have told you that," he says.

But it is on the three-member Board of Public Works where Dixon is rewriting the treasurer's historic role -- thanks largely to William Donald Schaefer's joining the board in January as state comptroller.

With Schaefer jousting continually with Glendening, his successor as governor, Dixon has emerged as the swing vote on several important issues.

He and Schaefer teamed to short-circuit the governor's plan to sell land purchased for the proposed Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County. The two cannot force Glendening to build the long-debated road, but, by blocking the sale of the right of way, they have left that option open for a future governor.

Two against one

They also stymied Glendening's effort to find a new site for the police training center proposed for Sykesville, in Dixon's home county.

Again, while Schaefer and Dixon cannot make Glendening keep the center in Carroll, they have prevented him from building it anywhere else.

"It's a three-member board, and I'm the key vote," says Dixon, 61. "It's a great position to be in."

It's also an unlikely position for a man of Dixon's roots.

His father dropped out of school in the seventh or eighth grade -- "That was as high as a black man could go in Carroll County in that time," Dixon says -- and worked as a projectionist at Westminster movie theaters and as the custodian at the public library.

His mother raised their six children and cleaned a church for extra money.

For 12 years, Dixon attended the all-black Robert Moton School in Westminster. Its 300 students had no indoor plumbing until a new building was opened when Dixon entered the seventh grade.

Service in Vietnam

After marrying his high school sweetheart and graduating from what is now Morgan State University, Dixon had trouble landing a job and joined the Army. He trained as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and served in Vietnam for 12 months in 1967 and 1968, helping administer a 400-bed hospital.

After his discharge in 1968, he set out to become a stockbroker, sending feelers to every investment firm in Baltimore. Only two would consider him. He ended up at Merrill Lynch, becoming, he believes, the second black broker in the city.

As he built up his brokerage business, Dixon jumped into politics, serving on the Carroll County school board for eight years before running in 1978 for the House of Delegates -- and losing.

Four years later, he tried again and won, becoming the first Democrat elected to the House from Carroll in two decades.

Three more times he defied the odds to win re-election -- a black Democrat in an overwhelmingly white and increasingly Republican county.

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