What a sad day in Baltimore
Love trumped common sense and cost Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon her political career.
That's the lesson you can draw from Dixon's negotiated resignation, which will take place Feb. 4.
Her "crimes" were relatively petty personally using donated gift cards intended for the poor and accepting presents from Baltimore developers, most of them from her boyfriend at the time, Ronald Lipscomb.
She admitted the night before her plea-bargain this week, "The bad choice I made was getting in a relationship with Ron Lipscomb" while Dixon was Baltimore City Council president and voting on a spending panel that awarded tax breaks to Lipscomb's projects.
Lipscomb knew how to romance key female public officials and lavish them with luxury shopping sprees and accommodations in five-star hotels. He became a big supporter and friend of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, too. Word spread that you needed Lipscomb on your development team to win City Hall building contracts or gain city zoning and tax breaks.
Prosecutors struck an earlier plea-deal with Lipscomb a very light slap on the wrist in exchange for his testimony against Dixon. But during opening arguments in the Dixon trial, it became clear the defense had reams of incriminating evidence against the gift-giving developer. At that late date, state prosecutors gambled on not presenting Lipscomb as a witness against the mayor.
It proved the most important moment of the trial.
Dixon's defense strategy depended on discrediting Lipscomb and convincing the jury that he, not she, was the miscreant who had sought to buy the mayor's support through romantic junkets and gifts. Without Lipscomb on the witness stand, defense lawyers were left scrambling for a way to rebut the remaining petty theft charges.
Dixon might have appealed the jury's compromise verdict and the inappropriate behavior of some of the jurors. She might also have won a reversal on technical legal grounds that would have permitted her to remain as mayor.
But that would have thrown Baltimore government into chaos and confusion for months to come something Dixon was unwilling to do. She cared too much about the city to put her constituents through that ordeal.
The biggest tragedy is that Sheila Dixon has been an outstanding mayor. Indeed, she was the best Baltimore leader since William Donald Schaefer. She worked tirelessly for the city, put together an outstanding executive team, made tough decisions without yielding to vested interest groups and was remarkably color blind in her appointments.
Under Dixon, Baltimore made remarkable strides in two of its biggest trouble spots public education and crime fighting. She was a vocal and prominent supporter of neighborhood development activities both big and small. She wasn't the most eloquent mayor, but she got things done and lifted the spirits of downtrodden Baltimore residents.
Baltimore city and Prince George's County remain Maryland's basket cases with an overabundance of violent crime, failing schools and rampant poverty.
Prince George's has suffered in recent years from unenlightened and unresponsive leadership. Now Baltimore faces an uncertain future and an ongoing budget crisis without its best mayor in a quarter century. A weak and poorly run Baltimore could become a millstone for the state of Maryland. The city, like Prince George's, needs an effective chief executive.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the city's current council president, automatically succeeds Dixon and will take over as Baltimore's second female mayor Feb. 4. She is untested as a manager.
But she learned much by watching her late father, the legendary Del. Howard ("Pete") Rawlings, in action. He was one of the most powerful lawmakers in the State House and so influential at home that his endorsement of O'Malley in the 1999 mayoral election is credited with ensuring his upset victory.
Still, Rawlings-Blake will find that running a troubled city and managing a multi-billion dollar budget is quite different from serving as a city legislator. The stakes are far higher and the pressures and attention are far more intense.
Rawlings-Blake will take over as mayor in the midst of a General Assembly session in which the governor is certain to reduce local aid to solve his own budget woes. How she reacts her lobbying on the city's behalf in Annapolis and her plan for eliminating the city's large deficit could set the tone for the rest of her tenure as mayor prior to Baltimore's next local election in 2011.
Dixon succeeded O'Malley as mayor when he was sworn in as governor in 2007. Like Rawlings-Blake, she was an untested and untrained chief executive. Dixon had spent 20 years in the City Council, the last eight as its president. She did not have a sterling reputation but she quickly showed she had matured during her council days and was ready to assume an executive role.
In her three years running Baltimore, Dixon was both effective and popular even while being dogged by a federal investigation (that found nothing to prosecute) and a state probe (that took three years and could only come up with "corruption" charges involving gift-giving and misappropriation of gift cards).
Now Dixon will be leaving Baltimore's top elected position with her reputation severely damaged.
Yes, she goes into the history books as Baltimore's first female City Council president, the city's first female mayor and the first female elected to a full term as mayor of Baltimore. She did much to make Maryland's biggest city better.
Yet the only thing most people will remember is that she accepted illicitly given fur coats and misappropriated gift cards. What a sad way to end a 23-year political career.
And what a sad day it is for a city in desperate need of strong, effective executive leadership.
Barry Rascovar is a longtime political columnist and a strategic communications consultant in the Baltimore area. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.