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Baltimore’s leadership vacuum

Who will lead?

The question might not have been different if the verdict in the trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon had been not guilty.

The case against her was decried as picayune. In dollar terms, it surely was — $600 or so. The gravity of the offense lay in the victims: The city’s mayor had stolen Christmas gifts from the poor.

There was a certain prosecutorial drama here, but it made the case in the courtroom and beyond.

Moreover, the underlying argument for proceeding against her was the potential curative or cleansing effect on others who might think about helping themselves to a few dollars here or there.

We are left with a disabled mayor, but she would have been damaged goods even if the jury had not convicted her of fraudulent misappropriation.

Now, finding an answer to the leadership question is more urgent. But questions like it might have arisen win, lose or draw.

How can the city be governed?

With much uncertainty about her status and the prospect of a long wait for a final judgment, how can the city be governed? Will there be turmoil and uncertainty?

How much damage had the trial done to Baltimore’s image? We’ve survived “The Wire,” but what about a mayor who stands guilty of robbing the poor?

Will the city’s redevelopment suffer? Will investors want to risk their money on projects here?

What about tourism?

Who will run for public office in a place where petty corruption passes for business as usual?

An uncompromising demand for good government values will be difficult to maintain with a mayor who may appear less committed to good government values than the Dixon jury was.

So where does that leave us?

For the moment, Baltimore remains in Sheila Dixon’s hands. She says she will serve until a final judgment is entered by the judge in her case. And, apparently, she will appeal.

In a strictly official sense, the leadership question has been answered. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake takes over once Dixon steps down.

Is Rawlings-Blake ready? (The question is always asked in less traumatic transitions.) She’s regarded by some as a kind of low-energy figure not ready at all.

The not-ready assessment, disputed by many who know her, has a near ironic precedent in the city’s political life.

An unlikely role model?

Ms. Rawlings-Blake’s best role model might actually be Sheila Dixon.

Many thought the mayor was overmatched by the challenges of the office when she was first elected.

But she performed way above expectations. She has seemed an ideal mayor for a city trying to overcome debilitating drug abuse and AIDS. She knows the toll and what it takes to prevail. Her brother died of the disease. The mayor raised his sons.

She has shown political courage, choosing a white police chief in a majority black city.

She attracted talented people for her cabinet. Some who joined her made it clear they would not continue if they saw obvious missteps. Virtually all of them are still on board.

Some say city officials adopted a detached posture in recent weeks — embarrassed by the charges and by the idea that anything goes in City Hall.

Others say the mayor‘s inner circle remains as committed and loyal to her as ever — perhaps more so.

Is it possible, then, that the Sheila Dixon convicted of embezzlement is not the Sheila Dixon who’s been serving as mayor? The offenses she was charged with happened more than four years ago.

People do occasionally see the error of their ways. She’s got good advisers — as committed to the city as the late Walter Sondheim, city father par excellence. The replacement Sondheims are as devoted to her as Walter was to then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

Ms. Dixon is, of course, responsible for her own actions. She stands convicted of embezzlement. Among some in the court of public opinion, she had a sense of entitlement — not the best characteristic for a public servant.

But she also is admired for her strength and resilience. Her ability to endure years of being turned slowly on a spit of suspicion sustained her. It was during this period of close scrutiny that she began to look like a very good mayor.

She cried when the guilty verdict was read. Who knows what these tears meant: a realization that they worst fears had been realized? Remorse? As others have begun to say, she might want to explain.

If by some stroke of judicial favor she were to continue as mayor, she might well step away from her perpetual toughness and acknowledge mistakes.

It may be too late.

But if she did, she might have a chance to fulfill her potential. She actually might be the best answer to the question, who will lead the city of Baltimore?

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.