Dixon the grouch creating problems

June 25, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

RICHARD DIXON isn't shy about telling folks he's the best state treasurer ever. He's not timid about extolling his investment prowess, either.

Maryland's pension funds are in great hands. Just ask him.

But Mr. Dixon now finds himself heaped in controversy. He says it's much ado about nothing. Some well-connected legislators, though, worry that he's creating problems that could be his undoing.

Mr. Dixon, 62, got his current job through his General Assembly connections. He represented Carroll County in the House of Delegates for three-plus terms.

His financial expertise as a stock broker and his conservative fiscal outlook propelled him into posts dealing with budgets, pensions and audits. It also helped that he was one of the few black faces in the House leadership.

When a vacancy occurred in the treasurer's office in 1996, Mr. Dixon was a natural. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor became his champion, and Mr. Taylor made sure the votes were there to elect Richard Dixon as the state's first African-American treasurer. (The General Assembly selects the state treasurer in Maryland.)

But Mr. Dixon was never a "yes" man in the legislature. He doesn't feel compelled to march lockstep with everyone else.

For instance, he refused to join the legislative black caucus in Annapolis: His rural, strongly conservative views clashed with members of that liberal caucus. He also worked mightily to reform the state's pension system in the 1980s, even in the face of vehement protests from powerful teacher and public employee unions.

As treasurer, Mr. Dixon has been just as independent. He can come across, though, as tactless, bull-headed or arrogant.

For instance, he waged a bitter, three-year battle to fire a pension board adviser whom he accused of opposing his efforts to give pension-investment business to minority and Baltimore-based firms.

Even after the pension board rebelled and endorsed the adviser's reappointment, Mr. Dixon used his post on the powerful Board of Public Works to thwart the move.

That struck some as heavy-handed and needlessly confrontational. There's an undercurrent of tension on the pension board.

This prompted complaints to top legislative leaders -- the very people who put Mr. Dixon in the treasurer's job. "Richard's digging himself a deep hole," warned one.

There's no immediate danger. The treasurer's mandate runs through 2002. At that point, though, Mr. Dixon's penchant for controversy could hurt chances for another term.

Politics will play a role. Mr. Dixon's benefactor, House Speaker Taylor, could have designs on the treasurer's post by then.

In 2002, Mr. Taylor will have spent nine grueling years as House speaker. There's already talk his future lies in running for state comptroller, running as a ticketmate for lieutenant governor or getting reelected so his colleagues can make him state treasurer.

He'd be a shoo-in. "If Casper decides he wants that job," said a veteran lawmaker, "he'd unite his friends and his enemies." Both groups would be happy if he became treasurer.

That's only likely to happen if Mr. Dixon keeps roiling the waters. He has formed an unholy alliance of sorts with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer against Gov. Parris N. Glendening on the Board of Public Works, an arrangement that at times becomes vindictive and mean-spirited.

That isn't winning Mr. Dixon points with lawmakers.

To the treasurer's credit, he has put state pension investments in overdrive. Some of his initiatives added $820 million in assets in just two years. Instead of being invested primarily in bonds, state pension funds now have 72 percent of their money in stocks.

What was a $20 billion fund in 1996 totals $32 billion today. Still, Mr. Dixon must guard against his Lone Ranger tendency. "I don't do everything by consensus," he admits. And there's the rub.

He's also got to tone down his chest-thumping. Some legislators -- who know a thing about enlarged egos -- say he's overdoing it.

For instance, the treasurer's Internet home page contains no information -- just a big color portrait of Mr. Dixon. It's three or four times as large as the photos of the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller on their Web sites.

There's no denying Mr. Dixon has used his stockbroker background to good advantage for state workers and teachers in the retirement systems.

It's his personality quirks that are creating problems.

That's too bad. It would be tragic if Richard Dixon's considerable achievements were eventually overshadowed by his penchant for irritating people.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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