Dixon's presence shadowed

January 18, 2009|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

At the start of Barack Obama's whistle-stop tour to Washington yesterday, the president-elect hailed the "outstanding" mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter. In Wilmington, he acknowledged Mayor James M. Baker by name.

Not so in Baltimore.

Mayor Sheila Dixon was one of thousands of Obama supporters braving hours of sub-freezing temperatures to greet him at War Memorial Plaza. "It's an extremely huge deal for me," she said in an interview before Obama's address. "Words can't describe how ecstatic we are."

But even as he gazed at City Hall, the man who will be the nation's first black president did not acknowledge that Baltimore's first black female mayor was in attendance.

He thanked Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native and House speaker, as well as Gov. Martin O'Malley and all "state" elected officials, but not his municipal host.

Then again, neither Nutter nor Baker is facing criminal charges of public corruption, as Dixon is. Her attorney has said she is innocent of all charges.

Officially, the line from the Obama and Dixon camps was that the 12-count indictment levied by a state prosecutor against the mayor last week had no impact on the ceremony.

Demaune Millard, Dixon's chief of staff, said the indictment, which includes charges of theft and perjury, never came up in conversations between the mayor's office and the inaugural committee organizing Obama's triumphant train trip to the White House.

Chris Mather, a spokeswoman for the inaugural committee, deflected questions about Dixon, insisting that the team's entire focus was on "renewing America's promise."

Dixon supported Obama during the primaries, but she was not as visible as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who co-chaired the Maryland for Obama campaign and introduced the president-elect to the city crowds yesterday.

And given the limited pageantry of yesterday's events, it's entirely possible that Dixon would have been relegated to the sidelines even if she were scandal-free.

"There was no real opportunity to do any type of pre-reception or anything like that," Dixon said, when asked if she expected to visit with the president-elect yesterday. "Things are extremely tight."

Dixon endorsed Obama almost a year ago today, before the Illinois senator was the front-runner. On Jan. 22 last year, at a Baltimore church once used as a safe house for slaves, Dixon said Obama's election would help fulfill the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dreams. Yesterday, she repeated that hope and expressed her pride in taking her children to see Obama speak in person.

"The timing is not the best," Dixon said, acknowledging that the charges against her could be seen as a distraction from Obama's visit. But her primary focus last week, she said, was on ensuring that city agencies successfully managed the complex logistics of the event.

The mayor once had different hopes for a celebration that required the shutdown of much of downtown and major expenditures to accommodate Obama's security entourage. Last month during a visit to Chicago, she chatted with Obama about his planned visit to Baltimore. She later told reporters that she hoped the future president would address city residents from a flag-draped balcony on City Hall's second floor. "It would be a great honor," she said.

Though she is the first Baltimore mayor to be indicted, Dixon has vowed to keep running the city without distraction, and her attendance yesterday was in keeping with the advice of her closest supporters.

"If she had asked me, I would have advised her to go out, enjoy the day ... take your mind off your troubles," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church, where Dixon worships. "When you're in politics, charges like this are made, and you can't slink into a hole. You need to go out there, represent your people and your city in this historic moment."

Baltimore Sun reporter Paul West contributed to this article.

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