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C. Fraser Smith: Calculating the Dixon factor

Sheila Dixon’s return to politics says as much about the crop of challengers in this year’s race for mayor as it does about her.

It’s vintage Dixon, though. Here she is, more or less announcing her candidacy for mayor in 2015 as if she were responding to a draft movement. It had the infamous Sheila sense of entitlement written all over it.

Maybe you remember: She was removed from office after being found guilty of taking $500 in gift cards she had solicited for the poor. She also had a potentially compromising dalliance with a developer who was looking for business with the city

Yet, now she emerges as a political strategist and advisor — at least in the estimation of the candidates running against Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. It was while confirming this to The Sun that Dixon made what amounted to an announcement of her future candidacy.

It’s probably just a distraction. She’s prohibited under terms of her sentence from running this year. And 2015 is at least a political lifetime away.

Still, her somewhat dramatic return is revealing on several levels. It’s revealing about Dixon, of course, but more important, it’s revealing about this election’s challengers.

What were they thinking?

There’s a suggestion here that Baltimoreans have forgiven the former mayor. But is there evidence that Baltimoreans feel she was wrongly convicted — or even if appropriately convicted, that the crime did not warrant the punishment she received?

Do the challengers think there is a reservoir of strength to be tapped by associating themselves with a disgraced leader trying to make a comeback? They’re out there every day speaking with voters. Are they hearing a lot of pro-Sheila sentiment? Even if it’s out there, could one of them hope to capture enough of it to win?

Okay, so they were just asking for advice. But again, how does it play? It plays like a commentary on their weaknesses as a field.

What were they thinking? Since this idea has an obvious downside, acting on it has an element of desperation.

They seemed to hang their hats on Ms. Dixon’s surprising early promise as mayor. She knew the city and its problems. She knew the toll of drugs on families. She was not reluctant to advise others to care for their children — as she had done with her own and her sister’s children. She seemed committed to staying the course, not moving on to some other job.

Pushing the ethical envelope

But too often she seemed willing to push the ethical envelope. She tried to steer business to a company that employed her sister. She finagled a contract for her campaign manager — a deal worth $600,000 over six years. The money was doled out in increments of less than $5,000 so that Board of Estimates approval would not be necessary.

Public officials shouldn’t game the system.

She seemed to move beyond all this. She was winning support across the city. Then came the gift card revelations.

She and Ms. Rawlings-Blake seemed to maintain a cordial relationship over the long, unsettling years in which Ms. Dixon was investigated, tried and ushered out of office. In accordance with the city charter, Rawlings-Blake became mayor. She was quick to declare a new day.

Are those who seek to replace her suggesting that the old Dixon days are preferable?

This campaign began with some useful — if occasionally fanciful — discussion of the city’s fiscal challenges. It would be encouraging to think the challengers might try to refocus our attention on the tax rate and their ideas for reducing it.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]