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The end of a promising roller coaster ride

The roller coaster stopped for Mayor Sheila Dixon Wednesday inside a Baltimore courtroom.

With blinding rapidity, she had moved from low expectations, to high marks — and almost instantly to object lesson. Some politician or other is always stumbling into the headlines, there to be pinioned by investigators eager for a quarry.

Now they will say, don’t do anything you don’t want to read about the newspaper. Don’t think you can get away with taking just a little bit. Remember Sheila Dixon.

And to think how promising her mayoralty had been

Her transition from City Council president to the mayor’s office had many in the city admitting they were wrong in their first judgments. Yes, she was indicted by the state’s special prosecutor, Robert Rohrbaugh, but he was appointed by a Republican governor. Surely this was a political attack on Baltimore, Democratic to its core.

The longer the investigation continued, the stronger grew the voices of her defenders. She was operating under a suffocating cloud. The city was being held back. Rohrbaugh should act or stand down. It was unfair to the mayor and to the city.

But then came the trial. Many thought she would survive because a developer would emerge as the heavy. Instead, the developer, Ronald Lipscomb, was made to disappear by the prosecutor, who cleverly decided to bank on the image of Baltimore’s mayor using gift cards intended for the poor. At Christmas. He laid them out one by one on the jury box railing. She might have seemed a sympathetic figure had a developer remained in the case, but kids at Christmas? Game over.

There are those in the city suffering whiplash. The mayor they had first discounted, and then embraced, had been taken low. The promise had been broken.

Maybe it was too late from the very beginning.

The mayor assembled a splendid supporting cast as she took office. She had advisers who helped her turn a doubting citizenry into believers. Some say, though, that she paid too little attention to their advice. She’s a strong-minded person — too strong, perhaps. She wisely accepted the inevitable: She was not going to prevail against her conviction, her image as someone willing to take from the needy.

She had been unusually generous in her personal life, her pastor and others said. And she had raised her brother’s children after he and his wife died of AIDS. This exemplary example, one of the riveting ironies of her fate, had made her an ideal mayor for Baltimore. She had stepped up to confront the reality. She often urged others to do the same — not something other political leaders do.

Now comes her successor with little time to prepare. Ms. Dixon must be off the premises by Feb. 4, just under a month from now.

Her successor under the city charter will be the City Council president, in this case Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Ms. Blake will ascend to the mayor’s office with as many questions about her ability as the outgoing mayor — though without a reputation for taking advantage.

It was said of Sheila Dixon that she had a sense of entitlement, a sense of privilege that allowed her to steer business toward friends and relatives. That sort of thing had become her identity in the council.

It’s one of the reasons she faced such doubt in the beginning.

By all accounts, she erased much of the skepticism. She had much of the city on her side before the prosecutor played the gift cards.

From that there was no comeback.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is fsmith@wypr.org.