A tough Mayor Dixon fights challenge from affable City Councilman Mitchell

Mayoral front-runners show contrast in style

Sheila Dixon

September 07, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

It is quiet at Equinox Hair in West Baltimore on a recent weekend morning. The only customers, Quinn Cokley and his two boys, are rotating between a couch along the wall and the barber's chair. No one smiles when Sheila Dixon walks in.

The mayor introduces herself, and Cokley quietly -- gently, even -- begins asking tough questions. He notes that many residents have put their children in public schools against their better judgment. He wants to know what Dixon has done to improve education and, more importantly, what she's going to do if elected.

"First of all, I taught school," Dixon responds, launching into her education platform -- which includes building new schools and opening them for community activities in the evening. "We've had so much conflict. Our kids have been caught up in that conflict. This year's going to be different. This year's going to be key."

Despite past ethical lapses, a significant increase in the number of homicides under her tenure and a campaign that has been largely devoid of specific proposals, Dixon is winning over Baltimore voters in a big way with her folksy, confident charm and by touting the difficult decisions she has made during her past eight months in office.

Dixon, the former City Council president, became Baltimore's 48th mayor -- and the first woman to hold that title -- on Jan. 17, the day her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, became governor. Now, she is running for a full, four-year term in Tuesday's primary election against six candidates, including City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Del. Jill P. Carter.

Credit due

In her past eight months on the job, Dixon, who is 53, has been credited with advancing a west side redevelopment project that languished for years, breathing new life into a police department that had become a liability under the former commissioner -- whom she fired -- and vowing to build at least seven new schools in the next decade.

The Baltimore native -- a mother of two who lives in the Hunting Ridge neighborhood near the city's western edge -- has talked about making the city cleaner. She has promised to light a fire under government employees, especially those who provide city services. She has adopted a softer, more community-friendly style of crime fighting.

Even her critics acknowledge that Dixon has brought together some of the city's most respected leaders. Former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, former state Democratic party leader Vera P. Hall and Kweisi Mfume -- the former congressman who many believe could have defeated Dixon had he run for mayor -- have aligned themselves with her administration.

"She's got spunk. And she's got the heart of a lion, and she's got compassion," said Mfume, a longtime ally who pushed Dixon to take his council seat when he left for Congress in 1987. "I think most people may not be aware of the amount of compassion that Sheila has for others. She doesn't wear it on her sleeve. As a strong, independent woman I think she's had to, in many instances, wear a tougher shell."

Her tenure, though, has also been riddled with problems -- a major increase in homicides chief among them. In the midst of an uptick in violent crime, she angered many police and firefighters -- already a dicey relationship because of contract negotiations -- by repeatedly shifting policies. She has tinkered with personnel in the housing department while many of its most talented staff resigned.

Ethical questions

Dixon, meanwhile, has yet to fully overcome ethical questions about some past actions -- in large part because she has rarely addressed them head on. It is a weakness her opponents in the race have exploited and that has sometimes affected her ability to lead. When her administration proposed loosening the same restrictions on public spending she was accused of skirting last year, the City Council shot the idea down.

Most recently, Dixon came under fire in 2006 when she was City Council president for voting on city contracts that went to her sister's employer -- an action she initially denied taking. She did not file complete ethics forms until after reports about her sister first appeared in The Sun. The paper also disclosed that her former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, received $600,000 in taxpayer money without a contract.

Clark was charged by the Maryland State Prosecutor last month for not filing an income tax return for three years while he worked for the city. The city's ethics board took a pass on investigating the contracts, but the prosecutor is still looking into the matter.

Dixon maintains that she has done nothing wrong. Weeks before taking office, she said she intended to discuss what happened, to lay out "the facts." That never took place, but Dixon told The Sun's editorial board late last month that she has tried to explain and people do not want to hear.

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