Dixon makes plans for a transition

Staff, schedule changes anticipate O'Malley win

October 15, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon, who will become the city's first female mayor if Martin O'Malley is elected governor next month, has quietly been making a series of changes to staff and style in recent weeks to prepare for the transition of power - just in case.

Unable to sit on the sidelines of this year's gubernatorial election between O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Dixon is shaking up her management team, intensifying her public schedule and becoming more vocal on a number of key issues, from low-income housing to a proposed citywide ban on smoking.

For Dixon, the ability to prepare for the mayor's office now might be crucial to a successful 11 months in the city's top job if O'Malley is elected and leaves for Annapolis - and even more key, some say, to overcoming the ethics scandal that dominated City Hall this year and led to a continuing investigation of her office by the state prosecutor.

"One of the fears that people have is that things will stop and that projects that are already in place will drop," Dixon said, when asked about the changes. "My job is to ensure the public and [city] agencies that we've got this momentum going, and we can't stop it."

As part of the effort, Dixon hired Ruffin "Chip" Brown as an executive director this month to oversee broad policy initiatives and, many speculate, shape up the office. Despite the unusual government title, Ruffin, a former aide to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and a captain in the Maryland National Guard, will be Dixon's top staff member.

Beatrice Tripps, Dixon's longtime chief of staff, will report to Brown but will continue to run the day-to-day operations of the office. Tripps was suspended without pay for a week this year after a series of articles in The Sun revealed improprieties involving Dixon's office and a contract to manage the council's computer system.

By city charter, Dixon, a Democrat, would serve the remainder of O'Malley's term if he is elected - from January through December. That transition could give her a significant advantage if she decides to seek a full four-year term in 2007. Other possible mayoral candidates have been discussed - including State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, former congressman and NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume, and City Council members Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.

None has committed to the race.

No modern council president in Baltimore has served out the remainder of a mayor's term and then won re-election to a full term. Clarence H. Du Burns was the last to try. In 1987, when William Donald Schaefer became governor, Burns became the city's first black mayor but lost his Democratic primary bid to Kurt L. Schmoke, who was then the city's state's attorney.

City Councilman Robert W. Curran said Burns was faced with a significant staffing problem during his brief tenure: Some of the most talented members of Schaefer's administration followed him from City Hall to the State House. Many speculate that Dixon might face a similar problem if O'Malley wins, and the council president has acknowledged that she must deal with that possibility.

"You need to make sure the transition is smooth," Curran said. "I'm glad to see that Sheila is at least making steps in that direction."

Dixon has been more visible in recent weeks. Her public schedule has become noticeably beefier, and on many days, Dixon is attending just as many - if not more - official events than O'Malley, who is busy campaigning and raising money for his gubernatorial race. Privately, she has also been meeting with business executives and other city leaders in an effort to warm them to the notion of a Dixon mayoral administration.

On the surface, Baltimore's City Council has long been viewed as a rubber stamp for the mayor. But many believe Dixon has increasingly negotiated with O'Malley in exchange for her support. Recently, Dixon won approval of a charter amendment to create an affordable housing trust fund despite initial opposition from the O'Malley administration - which had created its own affordable housing fund. The mayor signed the measure in August.

Also, Dixon recently said she is open to a discussion on a proposed smoking ban in restaurants and bars that has languished for months in the council but is now scheduled for a hearing this month. Though not an endorsement of the proposal, her comments break from the O'Malley administration, which has insisted on a statewide smoking ban rather than one that covers only the city.

Dixon, 52, served 12 years on the council before being elected president in 1999. O'Malley served with her on the council from 1991 to 1999, and the two later coined the phrase "partners in progress" to characterize their relationship as they ran together for re-election in 2003.

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