It's mid-afternoon on a sweltering Wednesday in July and, in the gymnasium of what was until recently Pimlico Middle School, 22 police trainees are smartly lined up and ready for their regular workout. Except that it's not all that regular—a fact that's betrayed by the cluster of fire and police brass in full dress blues, a photographer and TV news crew and, finally, the arrival of Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has ditched her business suit and heels in favor of loose blue workout pants, sneakers, and a T-shirt.
Dixon quietly slips into position between two trainees and then keeps pace as the group counts its way through 50 jumping jacks, 50 sit-ups, and a brisk run through the reinvented police-training building—up two flights of stairs, down a long hall, and back downstairs. She's here for the workout, but it's also a chance to meet the trainees and get her first good look at the newly opened center, where the city's police and fire trainees will train for duty.
Dixon sticks it out for a final round of 50 scissor kicks, then grabs a bottle of water and heads to the weight room, where she joins another group of cadets playing catch with a 10-pound medicine ball. The objective: keep the ball moving. Drop it and you earn yourself 10 push-ups. Dixon handily returns several passes and then fumbles. "Ten push-ups, right?" the 54-year-old mayor asks as the medicine ball hits the ground. A few cadets nod slowly, uncertain about the protocol for making your mayor do penalty push-ups. But before anyone can protest, she's halfway through, pounding out a respectable 10 (Dixon will drop for another 10 before the game is through.)
Later, she'll ruefully complain that the workout was brutal. But immediately afterward, Dixon—a devoted fitness buff who works out at least an hour a day and in her younger years earned a second-degree black belt in karate—is back at City Hall, knee-deep in the business of Baltimore. She is tough, no doubt. But the sweat she worked up with the trainees is nothing compared to what she's gone through politically in recent months.
It was only five months ago that Dixon endured a seven-hour raid on her Hunting Ridge home as part of a two-and-a-half-year investigation by a state prosecutor into city spending and gifts she received while she was City Council President. In its earlier days, the investigation revolved around contracts that went to Utech, a company that employed Dixon's sister, as well as money paid to former campaign manager Dale Clark for work done without a contract. (Clark and Utech president Mildred Boyer would eventually plead guilty to filing false tax returns. A city ethics board decided not to launch a formal investigation against Dixon in the Utech case.) But the bold move by prosecutors in searching Dixon's private home signaled they now had the mayor directly in their crosshairs.
Suddenly, all eyes were once again on Dixon. Her normally quiet Wednesday morning press conferences became prime time to hammer the mayor: Did she vote on contracts that benefited a certain contractor? How could she afford Armani? Did she think she'd survive politically? "Oh, I'm gonna survive this," Dixon told a gaggle of reporters assembled on the cobblestones outside city hall. She would, she vowed, "stay focused in this position." Then, in the glare of the public spotlight, she went about doing just that.
If Sheila Ann Dixon seemed destined as a child to do one thing in particular, becoming mayor of the city she grew up in probably would not have topped the list. "I was shy, believe it or not," says Dixon, taking a break from her workout with the trainees to talk about her path to the mayor's office. Instead, a career in education seemed in the cards. "I always knew that I wanted to work with kids," she says.
Growing up in West Baltimore in a middle-class family of six—her father was a car salesman and her mother was active in her church, the PTA, and local politics—Dixon says education "was something that was stressed pretty consistently."
But she traces her earliest interest in teaching to an elementary school teacher, "who wasn't very positive," especially with African-American children, and who aggravated what she says were her "self-esteem issues." As a result, "I didn't have the best experience." What she did have, though, was a career goal. Hoping to do better for someone else's child, Dixon set her sights on teaching.
By high school, her experience with the public school system had improved, as had her confidence. Dixon says her days at the city's Northwestern High School—during which she was a cheerleader and got involved in dance and drama—provided an "extremely solid foundation," despite challenges like overcrowding, which forced students to go to school in shifts for a time. During the summer, she worked as a camp counselor or a tutor. Then, with a crush on a local karate instructor, Dixon took up martial arts.
"If you wanted to meet him, you had to do karate," she says. Her romantic interest waned, but karate, which she practiced for 18 years, bolstered her confidence and "helped me to be more disciplined."
Following her dream, Dixon earned a degree in early childhood education from what is now Towson University and became a teacher. But once in the classroom, Dixon found herself frustrated by paperwork and procedures that left teachers hamstrung—a rule, for example, that restricted students to classes with kids their own age, regardless of ability.
"I had a number of students who were very bright," says Dixon. "So I used to sneak them into the class," that fit their abilities, she says. It was a temporary fix, however, and finally she realized that "the red tape took away from teaching."
Frustrated, Dixon shifted gears and became an international trade specialist for the Maryland State Department of Business and Economic Development, a job that fulfilled another dream: getting acquainted with far-flung parts of the world (in this case, Africa). Over the years, she also managed to squeeze in a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, become active in her church, and plunge into the political arena, signing on to aid in the political campaigns of Howard Pete Rawlings and Kweisi Mfume.
By 1987, running for office herself seemed a no-brainer. "I really wanted to make a difference in the community," says Dixon, who saw politics as one way to improve education, among other things. "I won," she says. "And the rest is history."
Along the way there were occasional rough patches. At a 1991 City Council debate on redistricting, an angry Dixon took off her shoe, waved it in the air and banged it against a table, telling a fellow council member who made a racially insensitive remark, "You've been running things for the past 20 years. Now the shoe is on the other foot."
Dixon thinks the press made too much of the incident, painting her as hotheaded rather than focusing on the comment that sparked her ire. But to this day, she's unapologetic. "In hindsight, I probably would have handled it differently. It was a very passionate, very sensitive moment. People were losing power, and if truth be told, most of the officials don't want to lose control of their territory."
Later, there would be other bumps in the road, among them a rebuke from the court system for the council's failure to comply with the state's Open Meetings Act, a dustup over Dixon keeping her DBED job at the same time she was City Council President, and questions about nepotism. (Dixon family members have been on the city payroll at various times.)
Dixon weathered the storms, and over the years honed and polished her public persona. Along the way, she also worked on conquering her inner introvert. "It didn't happen overnight," says Dixon, who still considers herself on the shy side. "You work at it every day." When she campaigned for City Council President for the first time in 1999, "I would set goals for myself," Dixon recalls. "I said, 'Okay, I'm going to go to an event and find out who 75 percent of the people are.'" Then she'd push past her reluctance and dive in.
Dixon won that election, and one more, keeping the City Council President post until January 2007, when then-mayor Martin O'Malley's move to the governor's office propelled Dixon into the mayor's slot.
Less than a year later, she was campaigning again, this time for her first full term as mayor.
Her status as a working mother (twice-divorced, Dixon has two children, 13-year-old Joshua and 19-year-old Jasmine), her passion for the job, and her long history in Baltimore City won support. To many, Dixon was someone who understood the city's problems and was passionate about fixing them. And she had personally been touched by some of the worst the city can offer: Her brother Phil (the father of now-professional basketball player Juan Dixon) was a former heroin addict who died in 1996 of complications related to AIDS.
In the end, although ethics questions persisted, Dixon, a Democrat, practically sailed into office, garnering a whopping 63 percent of the primary vote to effectively become Baltimore's first female mayor. (She snagged 81 percent of the vote in the general election—no surprise in a heavily Democratic city.)
When she took office, Dixon had tough words for Baltimore's bad element: "Baltimore is about to become the worst place in America for you to conduct your deadly business," she declared. For the city at large, she issued a challenge: "Stop making excuses, and start making a difference."
In the days immediately after state prosecutors knocked on her door at daybreak with a search warrant, Dixon was suddenly under the microscope.
Although the state prosecutor wouldn't comment publicly, media reports pointed to an investigation that now hinged on gifts Dixon received from a local developer while she was City Council President and voting on tax breaks, zoning changes, or funding for projects that involved his company. Responding to questions from The Baltimore Sun, Dixon released a statement acknowledging that she dated local developer Ronald Lipscomb for a short time in 2003 and 2004. (Both were separated from their spouses; Dixon is now divorced.) The two exchanged gifts as part of a personal relationship and the gifts didn't have any impact on her votes as President of the City Council, the statement said.
The admission was low on details, but a 2007 affidavit for a warrant to search Lipscomb's offices offered up plenty of juicy details. In the affidavit, first reported on by The Sun, investigators said they were looking into suspected "bribery, perjury, and misconduct in office." Dixon, the document said, had voted on city projects that involved Lipscomb's company, while at the same time accepting gifts from him. The affidavit detailed trips Dixon and Lipscomb made together, as well as pricey retail purchases made by Dixon—including furs, $570 Jimmy Choo shoes, and $4,410 in Armani fashions. Some of the travel and a gift certificate used by Dixon at a local furrier appeared to have been paid for by Lipscomb. In her required financial disclosure statements, she hadn't reported any gifts from Lipscomb.
As the details emerged, Dixon became the target of a steady stream of fur- and fancy-footwear-jabs in the local media.
For the record, Dixon attorney Dale P. Kelberman says Dixon didn't report the gifts because the city ethics code only requires disclosure of gifts given by people directly doing business with the city.
"Mr. Lipscomb was a subcontractor," says Kelberman. And Lipscomb's attorney, Gerard P. Martin, says Lipscomb didn't engage in bribery or seek to cover up gifts he gave Dixon. Martin also says Lipscomb wasn't a contractor or subcontractor on any city projects. "He never had a city job," says Martin. "He never had any say in any benefits that the city was being asked for."
Martin and others also point out that as President of the City Council, Dixon didn't have the sole authority to approve any contracts or tax breaks—those go through the Board of Estimates, on which she was just one vote. Dixon supporters, meanwhile, have decried the public smackdown state prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh delivered by searching Dixon's private residence and suggested the entire investigation was politically motivated. Rohrbaugh was appointed by former Governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican (who didn't return a call for comment for this story).
All along, the state prosecutor's office has declined to comment on any aspect—including the existence of—"any investigation or possible investigation," says James Cabezas, chief investigator for the Maryland State Prosecutor's office.
But Maryland Republican Party Chairman James Pelura pooh-poohs allegations of a witch hunt. "The facts seem to bear out that there is something to investigate," says Pelura. "If there's nothing there, then the investigation will prove that. Let's just see what happens."
If the media's sudden attention to her love life and the contents of her closets had Dixon longing to lay low, she didn't show it. Instead, the mayor stuck to her usual frenetic schedule of meetings, ribbon-cuttings, kickoffs, and award ceremonies.
Two days after the raid, she was slated to appear at the grand reopening of a city supermarket. "Some people thought, based on everything that was going on, 'Maybe she doesn't want to show up,'" Dixon recalls from her office, six weeks after the raid. But the mayor showed. "You just jump over those hurdles," she says. When she arrived, "People clapped and cheered and said I was doing a great job. That was a good feeling."
On Wednesdays, Dixon stuck with her scheduled press conferences. On Friday mornings, she hit the street for her usual bike ride around the city—an ad-hoc event that's open to the public. She even risked potentially dicey venues—keeping a call-in to 98 Rock's sometimes off-beat morning show and once even showing up unannounced at a happy hour frequented by journalists. "They were a little surprised to see me," Dixon recalls, smiling.
Through it all—with the exception of a few heated moments at the "I'll survive this" press conference—Dixon stayed calm in the face of pointed questions, answering some, deflecting others, and repeating her vow to stay focused on her job. It's a chin-up, full-steam-ahead approach that so far has won her kudos, even from critics. "She's done a good job in a very difficult position and under very difficult circumstances," says Matthew A. Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, who, in addition to studying local politics, also once worked for a political opponent of Dixon's. In terms of her ability to lead the city, he says, "So far, the fact that she's under investigation doesn't seem to have made much difference at all."
And as a strategy, remaining accessible to the public and press, "is very smart," says Crenson. "It implies she has nothing to hide." Still, it's a tough balancing act. "Your lawyer will always tell you to keep your mouth shut, which is great legal advice," says Crenson. "But if you're trying to get out in front of an allegation, the best thing is to rebut it and come back with a counterpunch."
For Dixon, enduring the public scrutiny in those early days after the raid, in particular, "wasn't easy," she admits. "I'm human. You have those moments." The hardest part, no doubt, was not being able to, in Crenson's word, counterpunch. "The problem was, I couldn't share my side of the story," says Dixon, who early on protested leaks to the media about the case. And while she still can't share, she has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. "I know in my heart and as an elected official what I've done," says Dixon. "And what I haven't done."
The Park Heights block party for Operation PROTECT—an eight-week crime-reduction and clean-up blitz by police, city agencies, and community organizations—has been underway for about an hour when Sheila Dixon arrives.
On a temporary stage, 92Q DJ Marc Clarke introduces the mayor and tells the crowd to, "Give her some love, Park Heights!" The crowd does. Then an energized Dixon, smartly dressed in a grey pantsuit, takes the microphone. "How's everybody doing?" she shouts. "You should be great!" She goes on to offer a few inspirational words and wins hearty applause when she declares, "I never knew I would be mayor of this city. I'm a product of Baltimore City schools. I know that we can succeed." Then she cedes the stage to an even bigger name, entertainer Bill Cosby, who has come to Baltimore to deliver his message of personal responsibility and the power of education.
For the next 40 minutes, Cosby will extol the virtues of community college, with Dixon nodding, clapping, and laughing as he goes. But first, Cosby gives Dixon a little love of his own. "This is a strong woman," he tells the crowd. "She needs you. And you need her."
If it's a veiled reference to Dixon's ethics woes, it will be the only one of the evening. Afterward, Dixon will meet journalists to shout, over the din of the party, answers to questions about Cosby, Operation PROTECT, and crime reduction. Nobody brings up the ethics investigation. In fact, by late July, news about the investigation has once again slowed to a trickle. When Dixon ventures out these days she's more likely to field questions about funding for after-school programs than about who paid for her furs.
In part that's because there's little new on the ethics front to report. Although a grand jury is meeting just blocks from City Hall, the proceedings are off-limits to the press and public.
But there's another factor that has likely helped the mayor avoid a loud public outcry over questions about ethics: In her nearly two years in office, Sheila Dixon is widely seen as having done a good job.
In fact, Dixon boasts a solid list of accomplishments. As mayor, she has ushered in a no-smoking law for the city, hired several well-regarded city leaders—including police commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, Fire Chief James Clack (who was the incident commander when the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapsed), and school superintendent Andrés Alonzo—and pushed forward an aggressive 10-year plan for helping the homeless. She has also doggedly pursued a host of cleaner, greener, healthier initiatives, one of which was the move to single-stream recycling, which has boosted recycling by more than 20 percent (and recycling revenues from $147,000 for the first seven months of 2007 to $279,000 for the first seven months of 2008). Tourism bookings hit a record in 2008, and city development is booming despite a sour economy—even the number of city residents is increasing for the first time in decades as the middle class and upper middle class return to the city's gentrified neighborhoods and waterfront condos from the 'burbs.
But the feat that has likely given Dixon the biggest boost is a striking reduction in violent crime. By September 2008, homicides were down 30 percent and non-fatal shootings were down 13 percent, compared to pre-Dixon rates. While the mayor can't take all the credit, some of the improvement almost certainly is tied to her decision to shift from Martin O'Malley's zero-tolerance crime fighting strategy to an approach that instead targets known offenders and focuses on strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and the community, and among various government agencies.
"I think, overall, the city is doing quite well," Dixon says between bites of a quick lunch in her office one afternoon. She acknowledges "some ups and downs in the last couple of months in fighting crime," but says the partnerships—within city departments, between the city and federal officials, and between the city and the community—have started to pay off.
So, too, has a shift within city government toward a get-it-done mentality.
"We have a culture in the city where people who work for the government think it's an easy job and they can do the minimum," says Dixon. "The biggest challenge is really to get the departments and agencies to understand our role in what happens in the city overall." That means encouraging city workers to "understand my philosophy and respond to that as far as [being] customer friendly [and] effective and efficient in what we do in providing services."
And while there's still a lot more that has to change in city government, Dixon says, "The tide is turning. I think now people have started to come out of that shell to contribute," a fact she attributes in part to a loud and clear message from the top: "We are not going to accept excuses," says Dixon. "We are forcing people to think outside the box and not complain, but come up with solutions."
If it sounds like tough talk, that's to be expected. Dixon is known to be direct, at times even blunt. And while her style can ruffle feathers, those around her say they appreciate the candor. "I always know where she's coming from," says City Council Vice President Ed Reisinger. "What you see is what you get."
And what you get, says police commissioner Bealefeld, is "an incredible visionary." When she talks about healing families, for example, "that's not passive rhetoric," he says. "She has all these ideas about how to do it."
Of course, Dixon isn't without her detractors.
"Sheila Dixon getting gifts, furs, whatever from someone she was romantically involved with, in exchange—yes, folks it's in exchange—for development contracts or favored status, whatever it is, is a problem, to put it lightly," says Maria Allwine, a Green Party candidate who ran unsuccessfully for City Council President in 2007. Allwine thinks Dixon should resign. "I would do it," she says. "You diminish the office by remaining there."
Even beyond the ethics questions, there are those who say that, under Dixon, progress hasn't come fast enough.
"I would describe her style as more caretaker than leader," says Maryland State Delegate Jill Carter, a Dixon opponent in the 2007 mayor's race. "Many of the things that are wrong with Baltimore are a result of politics as usual, and Sheila Dixon has been a big part of those politics."
Certainly, even Dixon—one of Charm City's biggest cheerleaders—would agree that there's still plenty that's "wrong" with Baltimore, from drugs, crime, and poverty to high taxes and struggling schools. And tough economic times won't make correcting those problems easier. Although the city has managed to stay within its budget without cutting services so far, "We're not having the kind of surpluses that we've had in the last three years," says Dixon. "But we have every key ingredient to be successful."
What lies ahead for Dixon personally remains to be seen. She faces potentially serious charges if there is an indictment, says Byron Warnken, a practicing attorney and an associate professor of criminal law and constitutional criminal procedure at the University of Baltimore School of Law. But by law, Dixon would be allowed to keep her job while she fought them. And, depending on how much proof the prosecutor can muster, a conviction could be far from a sure thing, especially in Baltimore City, where Dixon has solid support and where juries tend to favor defendants. On potential perjury charges related to her failure to disclose gifts, for example, Dixon might make headway with an argument that she believed she wasn't required to disclose. "Even if she was wrong in that belief, that doesn't necessarily mean perjury," says Warnken, who points out that the prosecutor would have to prove intent. "The prosecutor always has a difficult time with charges that are dependent on what someone knew or thought." And while a misdemeanor "misconduct in office" charge might stick, "in order to get bribery you're going to have to get her doing something for him in return for those gifts," says Warnken. "That's a lot harder to prove."
Proven or not, just how much impact the allegations have on Dixon's career depends on what the mayor decides to do next. Warnken predicts that, even without a conviction "her political future is probably very bleak, at least outside of Baltimore," but others say Dixon still has plenty of options, especially in the city and in the private sector.
For her part, Dixon says she's focused squarely on the present. "Right now I just want to be mayor," she says. As for the future, "Whatever happens, I'm going to move on," she says. "Because in this business, nothing is guaranteed."