Dixon learning new ropes as City Council president

Post brings a change in viewpoint, reason to seek compromise

September 08, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Though Sheila Dixon won high marks this year for energizing the City Council and trying to win respect for a political body that at best plays a supporting role, the council president could not step out of Mayor Martin O'Malley's shadow.

While the mayor garnered rave reviews as a rising political star, Dixon was chastised for being too accommodating. In a year when he seemed to grab all the good headlines, her headlines were for the questionable ethics of working two government jobs. To cut the stress, she pumped up her exercise regimen.

"I asked for it when I asked to be president of the City Council," Dixon said of her increased profile.

Since winning election last fall, the 13-year council veteran has had to become a leader and a student of compromise. She has had to look beyond the narrow confines of her old 4th District haunts in West Baltimore and consider the needs of the entire city. Last week, she named a 15-member commission to review the City Council's duties and the arguments for and against reducing the council's size.

Once best known for waving her shoe at a colleague in a racially charged debate, Dixon now has to reach out and forge alliances with old adversaries such as O'Malley, with whom she spent two terms on the council.

"For most of those eight years, we were on opposite sides of the issues," O'Malley said. "The nice thing about Sheila is that she's a very straightforward person. She doesn't mince words, and you pretty much know how she feels about an issue."

As the council prepares for its first full session with O'Malley beginning Sept. 25, Dixon faces the unique challenge of distinguishing herself without crippling the mayor's agenda or being seen as his rubber stamp. She also has to reorganize her office in the wake of her well-regarded chief of staff's resignation.

No longer does she drop hints about a possible mayoral run. William Donald Schaefer was the last council president to win the city's top job, and that was nearly 30 years ago.

"What I'm looking toward right now is doing the best job I can," said Dixon, who keeps a copy of the Leadership Bible on her desk.

Colleagues say Dixon, 45, has transformed the president's office. Instead of the "closed door," fortress-like atmosphere that prevailed during former Council President Lawrence A. Bell III's term, council members say, Dixon is accessible and readily shares information.

Bringing more energy

"It's refreshing," said East Baltimore Councilman John L. Cain, chairman of the Highways and Franchises subcommittee. "My last term in the council, that office didn't seem to do much. There was no energy over there."

This year the city's 19-member legislative body passed bills banning the sale of body armor and requiring that every child under age 2 be tested for lead poisoning. The council withheld $800,000 from three city agencies to force accountability and went on a retreat to learn how to work together.

"Those are things that if you look at the history of the council, they had not been done before," said Dixon, the first black woman to hold the office of council president.

Under Dixon, the council has toured the city and committee chairmen have had workshops on how to conduct hearings. There have been regular e-mails, in contrast to Bell's more tight-lipped tenure, when, according to West Baltimore Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., "you had to keep your ear to the ground."

Admirers talk about her ability to juggle a political career, a professional career and familial responsibilities. Dixon has two children. Those who work with her in City Hall say she is a stickler for detail.

"The one thing she hammers home, we know it so well we can recite it, is, `The one thing that will get you through at the end of the day is detail, detail, detail,'" said Anthony W. McCarthy, who resigned last month as Dixon's chief of staff. "You'd better have your ducks in a row, or she's going to pull you up on it."

The most striking change, however, is the constant push for teamwork.

Dixon set the agenda early, inviting council members on a three-day retreat in January to Mount Washington. The retreat cost taxpayers about $5,000. There were briefings by department heads, personality tests and a "team building" exercise taken from the pages of corporate America.

More than anything else, the retreat exemplified Dixon's desire to get a historically disparate group of elected city officials to work together. That's no easy task.

"It's like herding cats," said former Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Dixon might have been at her best so far during the bruising confirmation hearings for Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. In the end, the council gave Norris its unanimous support and Dixon won assurances that his contract would be reviewed in two years.

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