Should She Stay?

A Sun Snapshot : Nearly 400 People Represent A Cross Section Of Baltimore Debate Mayor Dixon's Future

December 06, 2009|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella ,

In the market and at the bus stop, over glasses of wine and under the barber's clippers, the daily rhythm of life in Baltimore has been interrupted by a question reverberating through many a conversation: Should Mayor Sheila Dixon, convicted of embezzlement, continue to run the city?

With emotions and opinions running the gamut and residents expressing everything from condemnation to support for Dixon, a sampling of 383 residents contacted by The Baltimore Sun found clear leanings:

Most of those questioned believe Dixon has done a good job as mayor. But despite that approval, a solid majority - including many of those who like what she has done for the city - say she should now leave office.

In an attempt to take the temperature of the city in the wake of a jury finding the mayor guilty of taking gift cards intended for the needy, The Sun dispatched 25 journalists to question residents of 15 neighborhoods selected for how they reflect the geographic, economic and racial diversity of the city as a whole.

More snapshot than science, the interviews nonetheless capture the current climate as Dixon and her lawyers and advisers mull her next legal and political moves, and she attempts to govern amid the overwhelming distraction of her ongoing woes.

"She might have a title but she won't have the support," Darnell Martin, 29, said as he sat on the steps of his aunt's brick rowhouse in West Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood. "If she did it one time, what makes you think she wouldn't do it again?"

If there is a bit of hope for the mayor at the moment, The Sun picked up a certain willingness to give Dixon another chance, with about half of those questioned open to supporting her should she run for office in the future.

"We all make mistakes, you know," said Cleveland Milton, who is in his 60s and was shopping on Reisterstown Road near Fallstaff. "So there is forgiveness."

Steve Stafford, 48, of Dickeyville, agreed, saying, "I guess I believe, ultimately, people can learn from their mistakes, and she's certainly done a good job with the city."

Racial differences emerge

In a city where racial and class divides ripple below the surface of daily life, The Sun found differences in how racial groups viewed the mayor. Black residents were almost evenly divided on whether the mayor should stay or go, but more than three times as many white residents wanted Dixon out as preferred her to remain.

Still, more striking was that the mayor has impassioned friends and now, perhaps, even more opponents across all groups.

From Stafford's quaint West Baltimore enclave of picket fences, cobblestone streets and 200-year-old houses, to harsher neighborhoods of boarded-up rowhouses, weedy empty lots and stores selling mostly liquor and lottery tickets, residents volubly shared views on the woman many referred to simply as "Sheila."

From this familiarity came a sense of betrayal - from those who watched proudly as someone much like them, an African-American woman from a modest background, ascended to the city's highest office, from those who cheered the reduction in crime under her watch and her commitment to cleaner streets, from those who felt her compassion and concern for their issues.

Robin Rogers, for example, struggles to make ends meet on a part-time job cleaning M&T Bank Stadium during football season, and said she had to sell her home of eight years when she could no longer afford it.

"Poor people like us voted for her," said Rogers, 51, "and she stole from us."

Especially in neighborhoods where poverty and crime are a crushing and daily presence, the idea that a mayor who makes $151,700 a year spent gift cards intended for the needy on herself cuts deeply.

Charles Broom, 74, has never made more than $15 an hour in his 30 years driving a cement truck for the city and was rankled when Dixon cited her own children and their tuitions last year when she and fellow top officials surreptitiously awarded each other pay raises.

"My daughter put herself through college," he said, as he and a friend stopped to buy food at a convenience store on West Baltimore Street.

A 'trivial' wrong, a lot of good

And yet, at the same time, there were those who thought the amount that Dixon was convicted of embezzling, about $500, paled in comparison to the good that she has done for the city.

"Trivial," Joanne Morin of Hamilton kept repeating as she sat on one of the Baltimore: Greatest City in America benches along Harford Road, her voice rising an annoyed octave each time. "Just trivial. I mean, so what?"

Mary Sirico, 37, who lives in Canton and was lunching near O'Donnell Square, also characterized Dixon's infraction as "a minor thing."

"I think she really is trying to make changes to bring the city together," Sirico said. "It would be devastating for the city if she was asked to leave at this point. We're just starting to get it off the ground."

Others were willing to keep a scandal-crippled mayor over a less-known quantity.

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