In the background of Baltimore mayor's race: Sheila Dixon

Former mayor helps Rawlings-Blake's challengers

July 12, 2011|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

When City Councilman Carl Stokes made an 11th-hour decision to pull out of the mayor's race, he sought the guidance of family members, supporters — and Sheila Dixon.

Stokes, who said last week that he was dropping out of the Democratic primary to improve the odds that incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would be defeated, chatted at length with the former mayor before making his decision.

While Dixon is barred from running for office this year as part of the plea deal to settle charges of theft and perjury, her influence pervades the mayoral contest.

She is in regular contact with Rawlings-Blake's three leading challengers: former city planning director Otis Rolley, state Sen. Catherine Pugh and Realtor and former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers. And she speaks frequently with Stokes, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other candidates in the September Democratic primary elections.

Dixon, who resigned last year as part of the plea deal, says she might run again for mayor four years from now. In the meantime, she's providing advice to campaigns at all levels, with a particular focus on those looking to unseat Rawlings-Blake, her former close friend and political ally.

"I don't think Stephanie has shown great leadership," Dixon said. "I don't see any real vision coming from her. I don't expect her to be like me in terms of dealing with all kinds of people and being a touchy-feely kind of mayor, but she doesn't come off as caring."

Rawlings-Blake declined repeated requests to respond to Dixon's comments, but issued a statement through a campaign spokeswoman.

"Stephanie's accomplishments show that she cares about the city of Baltimore," said spokeswoman Keiana Page. "She doesn't have a plastered smile, but she's serious about her job. Serious people look serious most of the time."

Page added, "From day one, Stephanie has been saying she has a vision for Baltimore, that it's a place with safer streets, stronger neighbors and better schools and more jobs, and I don't think you could have a stronger vision than that. If she didn't have vision, I think our city would be in a lot worse shape than it is."

Relations between Dixon and Rawlings-Blake have shifted dramatically from four years ago, when the women exchanged endorsements and campaigned together.

The pair clasped hands on stage (and were cheered on by Pugh) at a Druid Hill Park event celebrating women in politics, and Dixon shared campaign funds and workers with Rawlings-Blake.

The assistance helped Rawlings-Blake edge out Michael Sarbanes in the closely contested Democratic primary for council president, which put her in position to become mayor when Dixon resigned.

Dixon says she hasn't decided which of Rawlings-Blake's challengers to back, or if she will even make an endorsement. But she is dispensing advice behind the scenes, sharing the knowledge of the city's political landscape that she developed in 20 years on the City Council and another two as mayor.

Dixon chats regularly with Rolley, shared a stage — and exchanged compliments — last week with Landers, and sees Pugh at Bethel A.M.E. Church.

"I don't think there's a person in this race who, if she picked up the phone and called, wouldn't want to take her call," Pugh said. "There are a lot of things that Dixon did that I'm supportive of."

Rolley, who served as Dixon's chief of staff during her first year as mayor, has sought her guidance.

"Despite what happened, she has won a number of citywide races and is particularly gifted at campaigning," he said. "She still has a very strong base in this city."

Landers, whom Dixon appointed to chair a task force to lower property taxes, says he, too, has sought her advice.

"From my perspective, she was moving the city forward in the right direction on some of these issues," he said. "If we had continued to make progress on those issues, I probably wouldn't be in this race."

Landers, who stepped down as vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors recently to focus on his campaign, says Dixon is still popular.

"When I'm out there campaigning, for the most part people say they respect the job Sheila was doing," he said. He acknowledged that some are "bitter" or "disappointed" by her actions.

Observers say Dixon's depth of knowledge makes her a powerful ally. Some say voters might be willing to forgive Dixon's ethical lapses.

"She can rebuild herself as a consigliore," said Lester Spence, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "There are still a number of people who really like her, who think she made a mistake, but it was a minor mistake."

Spence pointed to Marion Barry, who was re-elected mayor of Washington even after he served six months in federal prison on drug charges. He currently serves on the City Council there.

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