Sheila Dixon and the rules of redemption

Once again, the former mayor seems to think the rules apply to everyone else.

July 16, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Call me old-fashioned, but I figure the process should be like this: guilt and punishment, followed by disgrace and shame, followed by a period of humility and self-examination, followed by insight and contrition, followed by a public appeal for forgiveness, followed by hard labor in good deeds, then redemption and grace, and maybe someday (if the statutes, stars and voters allow it) re-election.

That's my idea of how a corrupt American politician who betrayed the trust of the people who elected her — say, Baltimore's former mayor, Sheila Dixon — might execute a successful political comeback.

I'm not a Talmudic scholar. Having been raised Roman Catholic, my siblings and I never spent much time inside the Old Testament, either. But I've picked up a few things over the years — from the New Testament, Bruce Springsteen and Ann Landers — and I've got a pretty good sense of what the teaching through the ages has been about the earnest man or woman who seeks to resume the righteous path.

From the extreme doctrinal to the softer secular, from the Baltimore Catechism to John Waters' "Role Models," I've heard a lot of opinions on this subject and developed my own.

I've picked up some ideas from Shakespeare, too ("Oh shame, where is thy blush?"), from schoolteachers, and from elders who preached from bar stools and across kitchen tables. Having been in Maryland since the late 1970s, I've heard dozens of prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges allocute on politics, power, corruption and the human condition.

And so that's how I developed my recipe: guilt, shame, humility, insight, contrition, good deeds, forgiveness, redemption and maybe re-election.

What do we have with Sheila Dixon?

Apparently, she's attempting to jump from guilt to re-election, skipping the intermediary steps.

As The Sun's Julie Scharper reported the other day, Ms. Dixon is advising opponents of her successor, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and there's talk that the former mayor, who resigned in disgrace only last year, contemplates a comeback.

I think the preachers of Baltimore, including those who have been close to Ms. Dixon over the years, would agree that something's missing here. Let's look at the record with regard to the recipe for redemption.

Guilt and punishment: Ms. Dixon denied everything, at first, remember? There was a trial. In December 2009, a jury found her guilty of embezzling roughly $500 worth of retail gift cards intended for needy children. The next month, Ms. Dixon decided to agree to a plea deal for failing to disclose lavish gifts from her then-boyfriend, a developer who benefited from city tax breaks and contracts. Punishment? She did not go to jail. In fact, the deal allowed her to keep her $83,000 city pension, and that certainly softened the blow.

Disgrace and shame: One assumes Ms. Dixon felt some shame over all that was revealed about her personal life during the investigation and trial. But that's only because we're all human and can't imagine ourselves going through something like this without feeling humiliated, humbled, ashamed. Robert Rohrbaugh, the man who prosecuted her, blasted Ms. Dixon's "defiant arrogance" and "unrepentant" attitude. The trial judge said she would carry a "badge of dishonor" for the rest of her life. But, given her audacity to criticize her successor in public, Ms. Dixon hardly sounds burdened by that badge.

Humility and self-examination: A month after resigning, Ms. Dixon sent the city a $260 bill for hairstyling services.

Insight and contrition: Ms. Dixon has never publicly said she was sorry. In a December 2010 interview with the Daily Record, she used the word "disappointed," as in "I disappointed the city, my family and myself." In the same interview, she said, "I didn't do anything inappropriate as far as for being bribed or deals."

Public appeal for forgiveness: Are you kidding?

Hard labor in good deeds: Her plea deal required Ms. Dixon to perform 500 hours of community service and donate $45,000 to charity.

Redemption and grace: If anything, she's in a state of denial, not a state of grace.

I'm not encouraging Sheila Dixon to return to public life. I'm just saying, there's a way to do this. But what she's doing so far — criticizing her successor, suggesting a comeback just 17 months after resigning in disgrace and taking that fat pension — isn't it. She still thinks the rules apply to everyone but her.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He's the host of the daily Midday show on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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