Can She Save Baltimore?

Infant mortality, crime and AIDS have nearly crippled Baltimore. But for the first time it is being led by four Black women, with Sheila Dixon at the helm. Michael A. Fletcher examines whether the controversial new mayor can turn her city around

The Friday before Father's Day 2008 was bright in Baltimore, and so was the mood. Citizens assembled for a rally on the cobblestones in front of the baroque revival city hall, some wearing "Safe Streets" T-shirts. As Mayor Sheila Dixon approached the podium, she was greeted with applause, which grew more hearty as she announced plans for a series of community cookouts, "peace sermons" and block parties to take place over that weekend.

"The people in these T-shirts are not just wearing them for fashion," Dixon told the gathering, part of an initiative that partners outreach workers, religious figures and community leaders to intervene in disputes and prevent bloodshed in the city's toughest neighborhoods. "We can cease violence in these communities." Dixon exuded a well-earned confidence—after all, under her watch, violent crime has abated considerably, decreasing 26 percent since she took office in 2007.

Yet like a scene from The Wire, the gritty HBO drama that depicted the city's drug, crime and municipal problems, violence erupted anew. That night and early the next morning, nine people were shot in Baltimore, two fatally, shaking the city and leaving Dixon in a furious search for answers. But there were none. The shootings were simply a sobering reminder of the dire challenges confronting the first female mayor of this troubled metropolis.

A Tough Road Ahead

Born and raised in a working-class Baltimore family, Dixon attended public schools before going on to graduate from Towson and Johns Hopkins universities. She spent many years as an elementary school teacher, a grassroots activist and a low-level political operative before she ascended to elected office. Twice divorced, the 54-year-old mother of two loves to remind locals that she is one of them. "I am a Baltimorean," she often says. But she's quick to tell reporters that she is nothing like The Wire's ballsy politicians. In fact, Dixon, who has made a cameo appearance on the show, has told journalists that the Baltimore she was born and raised in has serious issues, but only a small part of her hometown is like the Baltimore on television.

Still, in a city where homicide is the leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults, and where infant mortality and drugs are huge problems while HIV-infection rates continue to soar, The Wire's version seems pretty real. Baltimore's neighborhoods, once characterized by neat blocks of row homes fronted by white marble stoops, are now too often urban battlegrounds with dealers and stickup kids terrorizing law-abiding citizens. The city averaged nearly 269 murders annually in the five-year period before Dixon took office in 2007. And that was an improvement over the 1990's, when the city routinely topped 300 homicides a year. Compounding matters is the frayed trust between police and residents—perhaps the two groups who need each other the most. Prosecutors complain that they are often thwarted by a local code of silence. Would-be witnesses are unwilling to tell authorities what they know about criminal activity. Some say the attitude is born of anger at overly aggressive police. Others say it is fear of retaliatory acts that have become all too common for those branded as snitches: shootings, firebombed homes and mouthed threats on the courthouse steps.

If the city is going to overcome its problems anytime soon, it will be Dixon and three other Black women who will lead the way. With City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan Pratt and City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, Dixon oversees an urban center of 631,000 that has a proud history of Black achievement, a bustling tourist trade, one of the world's leading university hospitals, a lively sports scene—and a sad array of human misery.

The Black women who run Baltimore agree that the city must rebuild its sagging human infrastructure, just as it has transformed the ethnic enclaves, abandoned factories and forbidding warehouses lining its waterfront into chic neighborhoods of upscale condominiums, townhomes, restaurants and nightspots. "We have to take on systemic issues if we're going to build a successful city beyond just brick and mortar," Dixon says. "That means factoring in human development and having our agencies rethink how they function."

Several years ago, State's Attorney Jessamy, who cut her teeth as a civil rights lawyer in her native Mississippi, led a successful effort in Baltimore to toughen criminal penalties for witness intimidation. She says the audacious hoodlums who are scaring witnesses are just a small minority that can prevail only if the city does not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with law-abiding citizens. But despite the problems, she says her faith is nourished almost daily, in the appreciative words of community leaders and even in the brief encounters with criminal defendants and their friends.

"As I walk through the courthouse, I see them with their pants down to their knees," she says. "I speak and then they speak to me. I've never had a door slam in my face. That tells me they have some level of manners. They just need someone to help mold them."

Grace Under Fire

The thickening ethical cloud over Dixon is obscuring her efforts to address issues. Like her city, she is not without problems. A state investigation began in 2006 with allegations that as council president, Dixon had helped steer city work to firms that employed her former campaign chairman and her sister. The drama intensified last June when state investigators searched the mayor's home, carrying out boxes of documents in full view of news cameras across the street. The probe now centers on Dixon's relationship with former boyfriend Ronald Lipscomb, president of Doracon Contracting, Inc., which was a subcontractor on several city-related deals Dixon voted on while council president.

Dixon is said to have spent a $2,000 gift certificate given to her by Lipscomb on two fur coats, which was not mentioned on her financial disclosure forms. Dixon met up with Lipscomb in Chicago in 2004, where she spent $4,000 on designer outfits, raising eyebrows because at the time she earned about $80,000 a year.

She maintains she has done nothing wrong and that she has always cooperated with the ongoing investigation. She also told reporters the gifts resulted from her personal relationship with Lipscomb, not her work. Her supporters point out that she was only one vote on the city's Board of Estimates and had no control over Lipscomb's subcontracts, which are negotiated with the prime contractor who, in turn, deals with the city.

"What really bothers me and troubles me is the fact that I can't talk about it in the media, because it is under investigation," Dixon told reporters a week after the raid on her home. "But certain media people are getting information through the prosecutor's office and that really bothers me because there is a process," she continued, complaining of leaks. Dixon's top aides say that while she is frustrated by the investigation, she is focused on her work. "It is not something we discuss or spend a lot of time thinking about," says Dixon's spokesperson Sterling Clifford. "We're doing the work."

A Surprising Success

Some politicians and pundits had dismissed Dixon as a divisive and uninspiring force during her nearly two-decade tenure on the city council. She was best known for pounding her shoe on the desk during a city council redistricting battle. "You've been running things for the past 20 years," she said to her White colleagues as she waved her shoe. "Now the shoe is on the other foot." She now says the incident created a misleading impression. "People had labeled me racist and radical and combative," Dixon says with a hint of resignation. "I know how I operate, and I have always been one who is a team player and focused."

Despite Dixon's tribulations, few can deny her triumphs. As mayor she has earned the grudging respect of many Baltimoreans impressed by cleaner streets and a significant drop in crime. She also has maintained good relations with the business community, even as she has prodded the city to pay as much attention to human development as it does to economic development.

And Dixon's success has shone some much-needed positive light on Baltimore. No other large city in the country has four top municipal officials who are African-American women. Black men with Ivy League pedigrees such as Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, and Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D–IL) are reshaping American politics and winning unprecedented support and praise from White voters. Black women have lagged behind. Even as Black women break barriers in fields from medicine to engineering, Dixon and Atlanta's Shirley Franklin are the only Black female mayors in the nation's 100 largest cities. Observers blame lingering sexism and racism. "Women in general face a challenge getting elected, and women of color face a double bind," says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

"For people to see that a city like Baltimore is not only being run but being run well by African-American women is significant," says City Council President Rawlings-Blake. Early on it seemed as if observers would come to city council meetings "expecting a catfight. There was this expectation that something would be different," she continues. "But after a while that wore off, and people realized that we are running the city just like the men before us ran the city." Adds Comptroller Pratt, "We are encouraging growth and development. Women, because of our nurturing instincts, are tremendous bridge builders."

Yet no one underestimates the problems she and the other leaders are grappling with. About 60,000 residents—nearly 1 in 10—are in need of alcohol or drug treatment, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The city has an infant mortality rate that is 50 percent above the Maryland average. Babies born in Baltimore are more likely than those elsewhere in the state to be born prematurely. The city also suffers growing rates of asthma and childhood morbid obesity. And most frightening of all, the Baltimore metropolitan area has the second-highest incidence of HIV and AIDS in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, topped only by Miami.

Earlier this year, a high school art teacher was beaten by one of her female students as other students cheered. The assault was captured on a cell phone camera and posted on the Internet. Weeks later, an assistant principal was working on a Sunday afternoon at a city middle school when two 13-year-old boys broke in and one of them tried to rape her. These were among more than 100 attacks by students against teachers in the past school year.

These brazen attacks are just the culmination of a long line of education problems. When Baltimore students enter kindergarten, only 58 percent of them are deemed fully ready to learn. By eighth grade, only one quarter of students are up to snuff in math. Nearly 43 percent of high schoolers miss at least 20 days of school a year, contributing to a dropout rate of at least 40 percent. "The problems of the city can be overwhelming if you don't have hope in your heart and you don't believe we can be better," says Rawlings-Blake. "But I also get to see on a daily basis what is right in Baltimore, and that is a motivation."

A Mayor Wins High Praise

Lean and fit, Dixon is a black belt in karate who has a no-nonsense demeanor softened by a stylish wardrobe and plainspoken style. There was little optimism among constituents when Dixon replaced the media-savvy and highly regarded Martin O'Malley, who moved on to be governor in January 2007. But that is changing. Businesspeople respect her endeavors to improve downtown business districts, such as repaving streets around shopping areas to encourage more traffic. Child-welfare advocates applaud her efforts to enhance services for at-risk children, such as sending home health aides to assist new mothers and working to expand preschool programs to children as young as 2. Senior citizens and homeless mothers are delighted when she takes time to visit them. Fair housing advocates like that she led the city in a suit against Wells Fargo Bank, charging that it discriminated against Black borrowers under the bank's subprime mortgage lending program, touching off a tidal wave of foreclosures.

She's also winning praise from the residents of the many violence-scarred neighborhoods for stepping up community policing, focusing on the hardest criminals and calling out the police when she thinks they're wrong. Not long after Dixon became mayor, police arrested a 7-year-old boy who was sitting on a motorized dirt bike in front of his home. Police said they had seen the boy riding the bike, which is illegal in Baltimore. But in a $40 million lawsuit the boy's family filed against the city, the family says that an officer grabbed the boy by his shirt collar and dragged him off the bike. After a loud argument with his mother, the police handcuffed the boy and took him into custody. He was held at a police station before later being released without charges, prompting an apology from city hall. "It is clear to me that the arrest was wrong," Dixon says, "that the officers on the scene should not have arrested the child."

Dixon's decision to back off zero-tolerance law enforcement, which involves police making arrests for even small public nuisance offenses, was initially met with reluctance. But many in the city believe her insistence on targeting the most violent offenders and partnering more closely with state and federal law enforcement officials resulted in the reduction of homicides. During the first six months of 2008, the city recorded 104 homicides—the lowest number for a similar period in 20 years. It has also raised public confidence in the police and reduced the officers' entanglements with innocent residents. "I think that sent a message to the community that the mayor wants to be a partner with them," Jessamy says.

Under Dixon's leadership, the number of persons arrested and later released without charges and the number of citizen complaints leveled at police are down significantly. "With zero tolerance, you arrest drug addicts, and they are part of the problem, but they're a different problem. You just can't arrest your way out of this. You waste a lot of resources when you do that," says Dixon.

She was in her second term as council president when she moved up to fill out the 11 remaining months in O'Malley's term. The city then overwhelmingly elected her to a four-year term as mayor last November. "I think people had an image of Mayor Dixon as a backbencher," says Martha McKenna, political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who managed Dixon's mayoral campaign. "But she was not as much of a backbencher as she was an understudy. She used that time in the council to watch and learn and prepare herself."

While her long political experience has helped guide her, so, too, have some of the painful experiences she had growing up. She says she was determined to go into education after a comment from her second grade teacher. "I had a teacher—she must have been having a bad day—who said, 'You won't amount to nothing,' '' Dixon recalls, her eyes widening at the memory. "That is what made me be a teacher," she says, explaining she wanted to help other children reach their potential.

A workmanlike speaker not immune to the occasional malaprop at the microphone, Dixon is less an inspiring public visionary than a master of small meetings and events in which her intimate knowledge of the city, simmering impatience and restless passion are her best assets. "I am very shy," she explains, "so it takes a lot to speak to a very diverse audience."

She says she has no aspirations for higher office and is focused on making Baltimore safer and healthier. She also struggles to balance the demands of her job with those of a single mom, trying to get home early on Tuesdays to make dinner for her middle school–age son and carving out time for some of his baseball games. Her daughter attends college in New York.

"She has a high energy level, and she is demanding," says Renee Samuels, director of the Mayor's Office of International and Immigrant Affairs. "But she doesn't ask any more of you than she would do herself."

During a ceremony marking the opening of an arts center on North Avenue, a long faded thoroughfare that connects some of the city's toughest neighborhoods, the mayor was upbeat and charming—even if the challenges facing the arts center were as evident as its potential. The center, which provides low-cost workspace to artists, is close to a major arts college and fledgling nightlife zone that includes several hip bars, a popular art movie house and a busy tapas restaurant. But it is also housed near a long-vacant storefront sandwiched between a dollar store and a check-cashing business on a dicey block that until recently most people avoided after dark. Passing traffic threatened to drown Dixon out as she spoke. The only television camera recording the event was from the city's cable station; the other crews scheduled to be there had been rerouted to a fire. Yet the mayor was upbeat, reminding constituents, "I'm a Baltimorean. I grew up here and I know what North Avenue was like. I know the potential."

If some politicians flaunt their academic credentials or national connections, Dixon likes to make clear that she knows firsthand the hurt of many of Baltimore's poorest citizens. She grew up in comfortable circumstances, but still the banes of Baltimore invaded her family. After her brother, a former drug user who had been in and out of prison, and his wife died of AIDS, she helped raise her niece and nephews, including NBA player Juan Dixon. The anger, sadness and embarrassment that came with visiting her brother in prison and then watching him and his wife die is something she talks about regularly. If Baltimore is to be rebuilt, she says, it is going to have to happen from the bottom up: "Too many families are hurting, too many are struggling and even breaking, and the price our children pay for this is beyond calculation."

"I Am a Baltimorean"

Nearly three dozen people are gathered under the bright fluorescent lights in the low-ceilinged basement of a women's group home when Dixon walks in. Cutting a slender figure in a blue pantsuit, she works her way past the recovering addicts, newly released felons and homeless teenagers to the front of the room, where Brother Ellsworth Johnson-Bey introduces her.

"She takes an interest in people like us," says the local activist known as Brother Bey. "How many people in high spaces and places take time out of their busy schedule, right, and come see people like us?"

"Not nobody!" the room responds in unison.

"That's what I'm talking about. So give her some love!" he says.

This isn't Dixon's first visit to Brother Bey's prisoner reentry program, which helps former prisoners adjust to life on the outside. Several years ago, she helped the 60-year-old former felon secure funding for his work. And since becoming mayor, Dixon has continued her support with both money and time. As she sees it, the people in that basement represent Baltimore's problems and promise.

As long as felons, drug addicts and the homeless do not feel valued and supported by the city, she says, they will be unable to repair their lives. And if those people don't change, she says, neither will the staggering problems facing Baltimore. "All people have to step up and play a role. It's not just the elite or the people in this room," Dixon tells the group. "It is all of us. We all have to be responsible."

For quite a while after her own short speech, Mayor Dixon listens as one after the other audience members testify about the lives they've lived, the hurdles they've encountered. Before Brother Bey ends the session, he extracts a promise from Dixon to return. Back in her car, Dixon jokes about how difficult Brother Bey is for most city officials to deal with. He leaves long messages on her cell phone voice mail. He can be overbearing, sometimes pointing at people, and always talking too much. But she says she always recognized his passion for working with the very people who hold the key to Baltimore's rebirth. She says that's the kind of passion that can make her city work.

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