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A day of dashed hopes, deep disappointment

As the pols-in-trouble script goes, there was no Richter Scale reading in the case against Mayor Sheila Dixon.

She hadn’t left someone to drown after driving her car off a bridge. She hadn’t tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat. There were no frozen bricks of cash in her refrigerator and no proof she had exchanged tax breaks to developers for cash.

Then nearly half the charges against her fell away in court. She was going to skate. No doubt about it.

But there was one often-expressed caveat. People might look past an ill-advised love relationship with a developer. But stealing from the poor?

Couldn’t be overlooked

It’s a majority black city. It’s also a poor city. And here you had the mayor charged with converting gift cards to her personal use.

It’s a city where jury nullification has been a big problem. In this case, though, the verdict was guilty of fraudulent misappropriation. The aftershocks of the verdict may shake the civic timbers as much as the other crimes she was accused of.

She may have no choice but to leave office. The city may have a new mayor shortly. Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would succeed her,

The mayor cried when the jury forewoman said guilty on the misappropriation charge. But outside the court building, she quickly set about affirming her determination to stay the course. Once again, she may succeed. But the task has gotten more challenging.

Much of the picture drawn in court was unsettling. Some hoped the mayor would testify, explain herself, speak to the jury writ large: the entire city. But this was a court, not a town meeting.

So the city is left with deep disappointment. Some are angry and disgusted. Others feel let down.

Some recent history

A little history might help at this point.

There were those who lamented her election. Some wanted the previous mayor (Gov. Martin O’Malley) to stay on to protect us. Ms. Dixon was going to be a disaster, they said.

But many critics found themselves in her camp within a year. She attracted talent for her team, committed people who have become even more committed to her. She handled the job with political courage, choosing a white police chief in a majority black city.

She was almost uniquely good for Baltimore, a city dealing with drug abuse. She had raised her brother’s sons, stepping up when he and their mother died of AIDS.

She seemed to have no political ambition beyond serving the city.

Right up to the trial, people hoped she might sail through. Optimism began to fade as the prosecution unveiled a petty business in City Hall: the asking for and taking of gift cards from developers. One of her predecessors swam with seals. She swam with sharks.
After asking one of these businessmen for cards from two local stores, she said she mistook his unmarked, card-laden envelope for a present from another developer.

Citizens were left to imagine a City Hall in which cash circulated freely to be picked up at will.

Defenders found themselves arguing for an innocent verdict based not on her guilt or innocence, but on the miniscule case brought by the prosecution.

The small potatoes defense, though, became an indictment of its own. How could our mayor have engaged in soliciting these cards – which, of course, were nothing more or less than cash?

Consternation, disappointment

So there is consternation and disappointment among those in the city who continue to wish her well. Their loyalty was tested by the drumbeat of prosecutors’ allusions to the poor. The mayor, the state said, had used the poor as a laundry.

Now, as if her job were not tough enough, Ms. Dixon faces the chore of winning back her supporters. It’s a shame, really, given what a comeback she had achieved.

Of course, neither she nor the city has escaped their purgatory. She faces at least one more trial, this one on perjury.

Her lawyers argued in the current case that some of the gift cards she allegedly stole were, in fact, gifts. If they were gifts, though, didn’t she have to report them? The prosecutor says failure to report was perjury.

Her expected defense? The gift giver’s name was not on the list of persons doing business with the city and, therefore, she had no obligation to report.

More disappointment may be on the way.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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