Some see cloud over City Hall

Though mayor has not been charged, pundits say scandals have harmed other cities' images

June 20, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

With the raid of Mayor Sheila Dixon's house, the complicated financial investigation that has bubbled through Baltimore news cycles for years officially jumped the local threshold. Political and public relations experts say this whiff of scandal will likely be an investigative cloud hovering over Baltimore's executive office, taking time and attention from pressing city business and potentially thwarting Dixon's agenda for progress.

Though Dixon has not been charged with any wrongdoing and an investigation involving government contracts hardly tips the public's meter for salaciousness - as has, for instance, the sex scandal involving Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick - political watchers say it doesn't take being caught in a hotel room with a crack pipe, as Washington's Marion Barry was, to tarnish a city's reputation or to hobble its renaissance.

"Immediately I thought, 'There you go, another distraction in Baltimore,' and Baltimore, like Detroit, doesn't need any more distractions," says Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit. "When you're facing a national recession, the last thing you want is a bevy of lawyers throwing writs at one another."

State prosecutors' vans filled with boxes and folders had barely pulled away from the mayor's Hunting Ridge home on Tuesday when someone updated her Wikipedia profile to include the raid.

The news appeared on the Internet, spread to blogs and, thanks to wire service accounts, appeared in newspapers in cities including Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and Erie, Pa.

Another big-city mayor dogged by scandal - albeit on a much different level.

Notable among those mayors is Detroit's Kilpatrick, who was recently charged with perjury and obstruction of justice after he was accused of attempting to hide an affair with his former chief of staff. Spicy text messages between Kilpatrick and the aide took the story global and made the mayor a punch line for late-night comedians.

"The bad news is, he could be forced out of office," Jay Leno joked one night. "The good news is, any time you get a chance to get out of Detroit, take it."

In California, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is married, was caught in a relationship with a Telemundo reporter, and in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom had an affair with his appointments secretary.

Corruption stories have surrounded Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for years, so much so that the Chicago Tribune recently described it as "the persistent drip, drip, drip of scandal at City Hall." And former Philadelphia Mayor John Street was the target of a long-standing federal corruption investigation that led to the bugging of the mayor's conference room.

The grand-daddy of all modern mayoral misbehavior has to be the District of Columbia's Marion Barry - a sex and drugs story complete with a grainy video of the mayor on crack, begging a model to sleep with him.

In Detroit, the Kilpatrick scandal has dominated headlines for months, Boyle says, spoiling moments that could have been much-needed bright spots for the struggling city.

When Detroit's Red Wings won the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup, the mayor was booed at the team's victory parade.

In March when the city should have been gloating over thousands of visitors coming in for a coveted round of the NCAA tournament, Kilpatrick's charges cast a shadow.

And when Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama stopped by Detroit for an event this week, the mayor held a news conference to explain why he would not be attending.

"It's a constant refrain," Boyle says. "Since the initial release of text messages and the story breaking, I would say the business of the city has been affected in a negative way."

In Baltimore, questions about the raid have followed Dixon from one public appearance to another. Whatever attention she hoped to bring to these causes, or whatever she planned to otherwise talk about this week, was lost.

Trevor Parry-Giles, an associate professor of political communications at the University of Maryland, College Park, believes the Dixon investigation would be much worse for Baltimore if she'd been in office longer.

"If it would have been [Martin] O'Malley, or Willy Don [Schaefer], that's a different story, those personas were more fully fused with the city," he said. "This will probably ruin her political career, but I can't imagine it having much impact on the city's reputation."

That said, he does think it will devastate Dixon's agenda. "These scandals," he said, "have an all-consuming power to stop everything dead in their tracks. Everything must be vetted vis-a-vis the scandal."

Michael Smith, a public relations professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, says Mayor Street's scandals became a virtual roadblock for progress in Philadelphia.

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