Dixon poised for likely return

Race: Challenger faces a challenge in the City Council president vote, which some say could decide the city's next mayor.

Election 2004

October 26, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The daughter of a car salesman is close to clinching a deal with voters, as City Council President Sheila Dixon seems likely to be returned to the No. 2 spot in City Hall.

She could hitch a ride to the mayor's office along the way.

Mayor Martin O'Malley is a heavy favorite to be re-elected Nov. 2. If he makes a gubernatorial bid in 2006, as expected, and wins, the council president will take over the city's top job.

"In effect, this could be the mayoral election held two years early," said Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.

Most voters don't realize the potential for Dixon's rapid ascension, Crenson said.

And he thinks many would be uneasy about it for reasons that include a continuing federal investigation of the council and a 13-year-old incident in which Dixon brandished a shoe at her colleagues.

"That casts a shadow over her," he said.

But Dixon's supporters say she is a dedicated and tenacious leader who has served the city well as council president - and would do the same as Baltimore's first female mayor.

"I think she would be a good mayor," said Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs. "I think, given what's challenging the city, she's done extraordinarily well."

With the power of incumbency, the backing of a popular mayor and an underfunded third-party challenger, Dixon, a Democrat, is not expected to have trouble winning re-election. She faces Joan Floyd, a Green Party candidate and community activist from Remington.

"It would be more than a shock," Crenson said of a potential upset. "It would have to be a miracle."

Dixon says she is campaigning hard.

"I don't take anything for granted," said Dixon, 50. "I realize I have an opponent in this election, and I'm dealing with that as best as I can."

Dixon says she deserves to return to office based on a record that includes advocating for AIDS programs, encouraging development and making the council, which used to take summers off, meet year-round.

"We've made great progress, and there's still more progress to be made," said Dixon, who spent 12 years on the council before being elected president in 1999. "And I feel that I can build on that."

Dixon questions whether Floyd, 49, a political novice, is qualified for the $80,000-a-year job.

Offering a challenge

"I would welcome her to come and spend the day, be the president for the day, to really see the ins and outs of what we do," Dixon said.

Floyd has seen more of City Hall than the average Baltimorean, attending not just the official council meetings that draw a handful of other civic-minded residents, but also more obscure sessions.

The challenger is an Ellicott City native who studied at Oxford, translated Moliere and wrote a play, The Latecomer, that won a Maryland State Arts Council award.

The chance placement of a CVS drugstore in the late 1990s led her to texts and tomes of a different sort: the Baltimore zoning code; the Maryland Open Meetings Act; the city charter; and state liquor law. The development that Floyd fought near her neighborhood awakened her passion for the nitty-gritty rules of government, she said. Convinced that those rules are often flouted by the council, Floyd wants to try running it herself.

"I have the experience that comes from dealing with government and observing its failings and being subject to its bad decisions and breakdowns in process," Floyd said. "Experience is the best teacher, they say, and I have learned a lot."

Dixon grew up in Baltimore, were she watched her father, Phillip Dixon Sr., overcome discrimination to become one of the city's first black car dealers. She attended city public schools and earned a bachelor's degree from Towson University and a master's from the Johns Hopkins University. She worked for nine years as a city elementary school teacher and lives in the Hunting Ridge neighborhood on the west side.

Her public image was forged - unfairly she has said - in 1991, when she waived her shoe at her colleagues during a racially charged debate over redistricting.

"You've been running things for 20 years," Dixon said at the time. "Now the shoe is on the other foot."

All these years later, people still bring up the shoe when talking about Dixon, a blunt speaker with a black belt in karate. Many recalled it when she was elected president and wondered if she could work with a white mayor.

But fears that Dixon's tenure would be combative and racially divisive have been replaced with criticism that she has been too cozy with O'Malley, who backs programs such as zero-tolerance policing that are at odds with Dixon's more liberal voting record.


Dixon's transformation is not that surprising given Baltimore's strong-mayor form of government, which gives O'Malley control over city contracts and the budget, said Crenson, the Johns Hopkins political scientist.

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