Madame mayor

September 02, 2007

There's no better time for Sheila Dixon to be mayor of Baltimore than now. After 20 years in public office, she knows the political terrain, the pitfalls of the job and, most inviting, the promise that the office holds for improving a city that she knows and loves. She is the Democratic candidate best suited to advance the city's successes and improve upon its failings.

Ms. Dixon has matured as a public official, developing a keen ear and a cooler head without sacrificing her passion for the work. As mayor, she has recognized that Baltimore is on the cusp of another leap forward. It's a point of view that requires an honest assessment of the city's pluses as well as its entrenched problems, and a determination to better the lives of its citizens.

Ms. Dixon may be the interim mayor, but in her short time in office, she has acted decisively as a chief executive: She fired the key people responsible for a flawed and fatal Fire Department training accident, removed an uninspiring police chief and jump-started a stalled development project on the west side.

Along the way, she has used the stock in trade of incumbency - city dollars - to expand after-school programs, attack the city's gang problem and boost an East Baltimore community struggling against ruthless drug dealers.

If elected mayor, she would likely have less money to spend on those efforts because of a steep downturn in the housing market, and the way she sets priorities would be important. But the greater challenge for the next mayor will be hiring a police commissioner who can replenish the ranks of the department, adopt the right enforcement strategy to reduce the murder rate and persuade a wary, often hostile, citizenry to join the fight.

Among her rivals for the mayor's job, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Del. Jill P. Carter have rightly pointed out that Ms. Dixon has to take responsibility for some of the failings of the administration of Martin O'Malley. By her own account, Ms. Dixon was his partner in progress - but the city's vacant housing stock and staffing problems at the Police Department haven't much improved since the two joined forces in 1999.

Delegate Carter, a relative newcomer to politics, having served only one full term as a state legislator, has been forceful and engaging on city school reform, the Police Department's woes and the estrangement of some neighborhoods from City Hall. She understands the importance of using public office as a bully pulpit, and we expect her to fight for the city in Annapolis.

Mr. Mitchell's years in the council have made him intimately aware of how the city works - and doesn't. He has hammered away at the escalating murder rate and a lack of accountability at the city's troubled schools, and he has tried to focus the city's attention on Ms. Dixon's past ethics problems, which continue to interest the state prosecutor.

But he needed more than a few good ideas to overtake an interim incumbent; he needed to persuasively show that he could handle the rigors of the job and would be a better mayor than she. A thoughtful and respected public servant, Mr. Mitchell will be missed greatly at City Hall.

Ms. Dixon has a personal profile that resonates powerfully in the city. Her background intersects with many of the issues at the heart of the city's struggles. A Baltimore native, she is a former schoolteacher and trade specialist. She lost a brother to an addiction-related illness and helped raise her nephew, a basketball standout at the University of Maryland. Ms. Dixon was elected to the City Council from West Baltimore and later won two citywide races for council president.

She is cautious, not always candid, but decisive. She may fumble at a microphone, but she speaks her mind. Her counsel in the mayor's office is diverse, and usually wisely chosen. As mayor, she has demanded of others what she demands of herself: hard work.

Public service is more than a job, Ms. Dixon has said, and if city workers don't understand that, they should consider other employment.

And public office is not a vehicle to reward supporters, financial or family, and Ms. Dixon should be keenly aware of that by now. Upholding the integrity of the mayor's office and the public's trust should be foremost on her mind.

Ms. Dixon may have inherited the job of mayor, but she has earned the chance to do it her way.

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