Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon

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Sheila Dixon overwhelmingly
elected as mayor of Baltimore

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

5 December 2009: Having secured re-election to a full term in November 2007, Baltimore's Sharon Dixon can point to her combative stand against gun crime in America's homicide capital. Prior to having assumed mayoral office as council president under the city's charter following former mayor Martin O'Malley's election to the state governorship, Dixon has held a number of public offices in 'Maryland's metropolis'. In December 2009, Sheila Dixon was convicted of embezzling US$500 worth of gift vouchers meant for poor families.

Mayor Monitor for Sheila Dixon: Assess her performance in office

Born in 1953, Dixon was raised and schooled in the city, with public service ideals instilled from an early age by her parents, both active in the community and worshippers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dixon graduated from the city's educationalist training college Towson and then its prestigious research institution Johns Hopkins with a master's degree. After stints as an elementary school teacher and adult education instructor, she worked for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development on international trade issues.

Dixon was elected to Baltimore's city council in 1987, having secured election to the Democratic Party's City State Central Committee a year earlier. Baltimore City Council is recognised as an independent entity under Maryland's constitution and therefore enjoys county-level status, both within the system of government and for the preparation of census data. In 2002, grassroots pressure from organisations such as ACORN led to the approval of a city initiative to reform the city council, reducing its size from 18 members elected in three districts to 14 members from single member wards. Though the council president continued to be elected on at large basis, Dixon as council president opposed the move, as did Mayor O'Malley. Under Baltimore's city charter, once O'Malley took office following his election as Maryland Governor in January 2007, as council president As her partial term was barely a year in office, Dixon had to work hard to establish her re-election campaign, though O'Malley's easy victories in the Democratic primary and gubernatorial election gave some time to prepare for administration given her automatic elevation to the post as council president.

Dixon's restriction to serve out the short remainder of O'Malley's mayoral term is compounded by being a tough act to follow given her predecessor's national profile, media presence and wide-ranging management reforms at city hall. However, Dixon can take some solace in being the one of the country's few big city female mayors and the first African-American mayor of her own city, with neighbouring city and state capital Annapolis electing Mayor Ellen Moyer in 2001 as its first woman mayor and Sharon Pratt Kelly as nearby Washington DC's sole African-American woman mayor in the early 1990s. While her first months in office saw a public smoking ban enacted and the prioritisation of city cleaning and public housing, her stance on crime has been questioned. Mayor Dixon has sought to deflect criticism and gain a reputation around crime fighting by championing the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition co-chaired by Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Thomas Menino, one of only two Maryland mayors to support what is considered by some to be 'anti-gun ownership' (the other being Mayor Ellen Moyer).

The city's image as a hot-spot of criminality owes as much to the actual crime stats, as poor as they are, as its depiction in hard-hitting prime time crime dramas such as Homicide: Life on the Street and the highly acclaimed The Wire (ballsy mayor Tommy Carcetti in the series was in fact modeled on O'Malley). The Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area of 8.1m forming a corridor between the nation's capital and the coastal city is notorious on the East Coast for its homicide rate and drugs problem, with intimidation by organised crime and historic organisational deficiencies in the city police department. Baltimore is ranked the 12th most dangerous city in America, second to Detroit among those over a 500,000 population. However, the city also famously enjoys the unenviable status as the homicide capital of the US, with a murder rate seven times the national rate and six times that of New York and has above average levels of crime against the person. In 2007 homicides are projected to exceed 300 over the year for the first time in a decade. The city's crime rate also highlights historic racial divisions. Staggeringly, 52% of the city's black males in their 20s are either in prison or under some form of correctional supervision. Inevitably, Mayor Dixon has been accused by opponents of being slack on crime, not least for departing from her predecessor's zero tolerance approach by prioritising violent crime.

As her partial term was barely a year in office, Dixon has had to work hard to establish her re-election campaign, though O'Malley's easy victories in the Democratic primary and gubernatorial election gave some time to prepare for administration given her automatic elevation to the post as council president. However, Dixon initially faced a troubling challenge in the form of Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP president and Democratic Congressman who considered a 2007 run for mayor having failed to secure the Democratic ticket for the vacant Senate seat in the 2006 mid-terms. Mfume, along with other Democrat heavyweights, including Governor O'Malley and city union chiefs, lent his endorsement to her city hall campaign launch in August 2007, effectively sealing incumbency with party establishment backing.

The outcome of the September Democratic mayoral primary effectively determined the city's next mayor in advance of the November election, with the Republicans failing to win a mayoral race in the city since 1963.
Dixon's nearest yet underdog rival is city council member Keiffer J. Mitchell, grandson of civil rights leader Clarence Mitchell, and a dynamic grassroots performer, with the backing of the city's police and fire unions, having homed in on Dixon's performance on crime. The Mitchell campaign suffered a setback when it was revealed that his father, campaign treasurer, had used funds for personal spending, a charge which since dogged the Dixon campaign concerning her own sister's employment. Dixon was cleared by earlier ethics probes concerning sister Janice Dixon's employment at city hall and for a company which was awarded contracts voted upon by her as a member of the city board of estimate. In June 2008 however Dixon was subject to a house search by local prosecutors over alleged bribery.  Earlier in the year two Dixon campaign chiefs pleaded guilty to tax evasion and are currently assisting the investigation into the mayor.

Mayor Dixon has two children to her former husband, whom she married in 1998 and divorced in 2006.