Baltimore's `queen' worked hard to earn four-year reign

September 16, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Now the caretaker takes charge.

Though she's been Baltimore's mayor since Gov. Martin O'Malley left City Hall for Annapolis, Sheila Dixon was something of a placeholder.

She spent the interregnum effectively, accomplishing a political makeover in full public view.

Her earliest image had offered little more than sharp edges. It was replaced by a measured and decisive grasp of her role. She smiled warmly, spoke movingly and acted decisively in crises.

This performance allowed her to arrive at Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting as winner of the Democratic Party's mayoral endorsement. With an overwhelming Democratic voter registration advantage, she was all but assured a four-year term.

She will take over as Baltimore's first elected black female chief executive. She won in a city where the most important voting bloc may be black women: grandmothers, mothers, heads of households, women with careers, churchgoers. Along with City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, her win may be seen as a culmination of evolving "woman power" in this majority-black city.

But there is another dimension to her victory, one that augurs well for her and her administration.

She may be the first elected black mayor who is widely seen as enthusiastic about the job. She had to work for it, prepare for it and play her political cards well for 20 years on the council. Kurt L. Schmoke is entitled to his distinction as the city's first elected black mayor, but he was virtually anointed to that honor.

In the context of this nation's racial history, he was the perfect transitional black mayoral candidate. He was a candidate with great crossover appeal to white voters in a city in which black voters had been poised for years to elect him.

Now dean of the Howard University Law School, the scholarly Mr. Schmoke didn't have to wonder if the job would ever be his. He had a can't-lose smile and a gold-plated r?sum?. Many mothers saw him, it was said, as an ideal son. His breakthrough was momentous nevertheless.

Mr. Schmoke came to office after William Donald Schaefer left to run for governor. He won it over Clarence H. Du Burns, a councilman who was an interim mayor like Ms. Dixon. Like her, Mr. Burns ran more strongly than many expected. He may have been a little more "Baltimore" than the highly educated Mr. Schmoke.

Mr. Schmoke was not highly regarded by some, but he had what people called "mother wit," a self-confidence that carried him through.

Ms. Dixon has shown her own version of seasoning and self-assurance. Without condescending to any of her opponents and while seeming to accept the idea that she had to win the office, she seemed mayoral during the campaign. One of her opponents derisively called her "queen for a day," and others said she was merely the temporary mayor. She smiled, making no protest, knowing these jabs were part of the game.

At one of the debates, an aide handed her a coffee cup that read: "It's good to be queen." At Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting, she introduced herself as the queen. So perhaps she already has a nickname. Like Mr. Schaefer, she arrived in the mayor's office with much experience in the affairs of government - and low expectations. She settles in now at a time when the city needs momentum, a new sense of direction and a way to address the culture of crime that threatens, primarily, another generation of young black men.

Experts say the epidemic of murders and related offenses in many city neighborhoods results from years of destructive behavior, lack of nurturing, hopelessness and poverty. Ms. Dixon and her city are not blessed with abundant financial resources.

But all of her recent predecessors have had to find extraordinary resources. Mr. Schaefer had a relative shower of state and federal money and the ability to make people see that Baltimoreans could have a sparkling new harbor and a tourist trade. Mr. Schmoke maintained the city through a period of sharply dropping financial support from Washington. Governor O'Malley asked the city to believe that life could be better without drugs. He left a work in progress.

Ms. Dixon can stand before the city's crime-plagued neighborhoods and say, I really do know what you're up against. Her brother, a heroin addict, died of AIDS, as did the brother's wife. Ms. Dixon raised their two sons. Aides say she has been frank in challenging people in similar circumstances.

Hers is really a heroic story. Yet relatively few Baltimoreans turned out for the election. If she is lucky and as devoted as she promises to be, she could leave many in the city claiming proudly: I was with you from the start.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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