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Oh Sheila

A liberal's lament for what might have been

Illustrations By Tom Chalkley

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 1/13/2010

The first and last time I came within arm's reach of Sheila Dixon, I gave her a hug. It was March 2008,  and Baltimore's newly elected mayor had just delivered a spirited little speech to an environmental conference at Goucher College. Dixon ticked off a list of specific projects the city was undertaking to promote recycling, clean up street trash, encourage bicycling, and improve sewers. The environmentalists in the room were already thrilled by the vigor with which Dixon, as acting mayor, had embraced their cause and made it her own; the "Cleaner, Greener Baltimore" initiative was perhaps the most visible component of her governing agenda. 

As the mayor walked back up the aisle, shaking hands and accepting congratulations, I stepped out and gave her my quick but enthusiastic embrace, and wished her good luck. She seemed a bit startled, and I was a bit surprised myself. I'd been a pretty loud-mouthed Dixon critic. Since becoming mayor, however, she'd completely won me over. Had she changed? Or had I missed something all along?

Like many other Baltimoreans of my demographic bloc--namely middle-class white liberals--I'd been, at best, skeptical of Dixon during her years serving on the City Council and as Council president. My reasons were commonplace and, frankly, not terribly substantive: She'd gotten off on the wrong foot back in 1991, when she famously brandished her shoe during a Council meeting and exulted that African-Americans formed a majority of the City Council. I understood the sentiment--it was, indeed, past time for black Baltimoreans to lead--but Dixon's grandstanding seemed like nothing but cheap demagoguery. Years later, as a cartoonist/reporter at City Hall, I had occasion to see her in action behind the podium. If she'd played the firebrand in 1991, she had by 2002 become the complacent alpha female of Baltimore's constitutionally feckless legislative body

Suspicion over petty corruption had dogged Dixon since 2006. I confess that I didn't take it all that seriously. I grew up in the Maryland of Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel; I'd seen an affable City Council president, Walter Orlinsky, brought down by bribery and extortion charges; I've spent enough time in Annapolis to be fatalistic about the orgiastic intimacy of  lobbyists, developers, and  lawmakers. What struck me about the alleged malfeasance of Council President Dixon was how dumb it all seemed to be. With so many legal ways for politicians to enrich themselves and their cronies, who but a fool--or a slob--would resort to breaking the law? A fool or a slob or, in hindsight, an arrogant pol with an overweening sense of entitlement and exemption from the law.

I really began to pay attention when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley declared his candidacy for governor of Maryland. I was sorely aggrieved with O'Malley, whom I'd always accused of using Baltimore as his stepping-stone to higher office. Not only was he shortchanging the city residents who had elected him to a second term in 2004, he was essentially proposing to hand the city's governance over to Dixon. 

During this time, I listened to Dixon's several appearances on Marc Steiner's WPYR-FM talk show, and was struck by her ability to say absolutely nothing at great length. Aside from her clichéd rhetoric--rote pronouncements about making Baltimore a great city for the people of Baltimore, and so on--she didn't even use the English language very well. Being a grammar snob, I thought her linguistic lapses were evidence of a less than first-rate mind. You may read into that last statement whatever prejudices of class and race you wish. In fact, I wanted her to make me wrong; I wanted the prospective next mayor to give me some cause for hope. I found myself shouting at the radio, "Say something! Express a goddam idea!"  When, at the conclusion of one such vacuous interview, she blandly declared herself ready to step in as mayor, I was incredulous. I began talking up the cause of O'Malley's gubernatorial rival, Douglas Duncan, former executive of Montgomery County. I wore a button that said duncan for governor, o'malley for mayor.

At a potluck dinner in my neighborhood, a friend heard me blowing hard on the subject of O'Malley and Dixon, and piped up, "What have you got against Dixon?" I answered, "She's stupid and venal!" To which my neighbor gently responded that we should perhaps give her a chance.  

In fact, when Dixon became acting mayor, she really started acting like a mayor. I wasn't the only Baltimorean who was happily surprised. My sudden change of heart regarding Dixon occurred not overnight, but over the course of several more Marc Steiner interviews. Where City Council President Dixon had filled her speech with meaningless generalities, acting Mayor Dixon rattled off a series of new initiatives she would undertake.  She was in charge. There was a toughness in her use of specific nouns and action verbs. I heard pride and passion, especially when she talked about her "cleaner, greener" visions. 

My fellow white liberals were excited by her recruitment of Andy Frank from Baltimore Development Corp. to serve as deputy mayor.  Frank was a great pick: issue-smart and politically savvy. The rumor was that Dixon had made other smart choices. 

My perception began to shift: Had Dixon planned this all along, deliberately keeping her pronouncements vague until the levers of power were firmly in her grasp? It began to seem like smart politics. She'd been O'Malley's low-key collaborator; now, as his successor, she was declaring independence.

At the opening ceremony for new hike-and-bike lanes at Lake Montebello in August 2007, Dixon spoke at some length not only about bicycling and other green topics dear to the crowd, but about the quality of city life in general. The tough, almost truculent tone she had previously reserved for her critics seemed now to be directed toward the city's blights. It suddenly occurred to me that Dixon might be a mayor in the William Donald Schaefer mold: a politician who took her connection with the city very personally. To cast aspersions on Baltimore had been to insult Schaefer; to criticize a Schaefer policy was to run the city down. Several people commented to me that Dixon, unlike O'Malley, had achieved her life-long goal by becoming mayor. She took the job seriously, and didn't want to mess it up.  

Also, unlike O'Malley, Dixon was a creature of the city. I imagined her, arms akimbo, calling city bureaucrats to account in ways that might never have been possible for the whippersnapper/carpetbagger O'Malley. Over the course of yet another Steiner interview, I found myself positively warming toward Dixon. 

Not that everything was perfect. After Anthony McCarthy, another one of her smart picks, left his City Hall position, there were rumbles that aside from a couple of stars like Frank, Dixon's bench was not so deep. I heard complaints that her administration "didn't understand how to work with business." 

Perhaps my original expectations of Dixon had been so low that mere competence had moved me into her cheering section. But she'd gone beyond mere competence. She'd shown leadership. At the very least, her administration was really good at managing public perceptions, which is a crucial skill in governing a morale-challenged city. Things were going well, enough that, when old charges of corruption began to resurface, I didn't want to hear about them. That was old news--the old Dixon. The Republican prosecutor was fishing for evidence. The media were hounding her, just when she was hitting her stride as mayor. 

I fail to be shocked at what Dixon was accused and convicted of. In the annals of corruption in urban America, the now-infamous gift cards are small change. What I feel isn't shock, it's dismay. The very pettiness of her misdeeds--the paltry, unnecessary, gratuitous character of her self-dealing--turns Dixon's fall from power into a tragedy in something like the classic sense. The past crimes unearthed, the connivance of enemies who knew her weaknesses, the hubristic denials--short of death-by-dagger, it's right out of Shakespeare. For many of us, the Baltimoreans who had begun to feel new hope for our city, it's a tragedy in the loose, modern sense: something deeply sad.

Given my own experience of the Dixon years, I will be slow to judge her successor. I wish us all good luck, including Mayor Rawlings-Blake. But I'll spare her the hug.

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