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C. Fraser Smith: Dixon’s misleading campaign tactic

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon released her economic development plan, portraying large property tax cuts proposed by other candidates as irresponsible. (The Daily Record File)

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. (The Daily Record File)

Heard on the street – more than once:

I like Sheila. I think she was a good mayor. But I just can’t get past the embezzlement thing.

Maybe you’ve heard the same somewhat anguished voter comment in this election year.

The reference comes with near-100 percent recognition for Baltimore voters. Who doesn’t remember that former Mayor Sheila Dixon was forced out of office after conviction on charges of misappropriation of funds – to wit, gift cards meant for poor kids?

Hard to imagine anything more damaging for a mayor of Baltimore, even more so for someone looking to regain the office.

Dixon’s competitors in this race hardly need to mention this history. It’s hard to think anyone has missed it. So the campaigns may make oblique references to running for the future and leaving the past behind.

Polling and chatter among the inside political forces suggest that Dixon has a strong, immovable base – but little room to climb higher in the polls. The group of voters with misgivings about Dixon’s ethics seems to be growing – or perhaps they are discovering a less-concerning choice.

The ex-mayor had been running far ahead of the pack before it was a pack. Now there are a total of 13 Democratic candidates. Recent polling shows state Sen. Catherine Pugh pulling ahead of Dixon with newcomer Elizabeth Embry moving into third place but a distant third.

We seem to have a two-person race. A significant number of poll respondents say they might change their minds, but there’s limited time for doing that. Early voting begins next week. Election Day is April 26.

Which does not mean, of course, that the campaigning will become less intense? Many voters don’t really focus on races they care about until two weeks or so before the voting. Look for game-changing events.

Yesterday, for example, Common Cause of Maryland sought to clarify or correct an important example of tricky campaigning. Baltimore, the watchdog group said, has too often been at the center of such controversies.

Dixon had accused the Pugh campaign of breaking campaign contribution rules, using Common Cause as the source of its charges. Not so at all, said a statement from Common Cause.

A Dixon leaflet said Pugh’s campaign “crosses the line into clearly-illegal territory.” In so charging, the campaign cited Common cause as its authority.

The charge: Pugh was taking money from people using “false names and using false addresses.” Maybe so, said Common Cause, but: “… “Common Cause is unaware of any evidence that would indicate the Pugh campaign was aware of or complicit in those violations.”

Common Cause said the Dixon campaign had not sought permission to use its name on campaign literature, adding “we do not approve of her campaign’s use of our quotes out of the context in which they were given.”

Such a disclosure would or might have the effect of blunting what appears to be growing Pugh campaign momentum. If Dixon’s campaign was slowed or even stopped by ethical questions, raising concerns about her primary opponent had similar issues.

Indeed questions were raised about Pugh taking contributions from lobbyists in Annapolis. A loophole allowed her to accept campaign contributions during the legislative session. What Pugh did was not illegal. Voters will decide what they think about the question. 

This Common Cause disclosure could not have been good for the Dixon effort. If her less-than-ethical behavior in office was a major roadblock, more of the same by her campaign would be counterproductive at best.

Maybe the campaign wanted to plant a seed of doubt – or worse. Maybe it thought some damage could be done even if the trick was discovered. And there may be more to this story. Some of Pugh’s contributions turned out to be bad checks. Were they floated to make her look stronger financially?

That sort of game playing, Common Cause said, has been almost par for the course historically in Baltimore.

Campaigns and candidates at the federal level might be a better parallel. Candidates have shown contempt for voters by telling whoppers one day – and walking them back the next.

So what if the lie or misstatement will be discovered. The disavowal or “misspoke” defense will be unfurled. Mission accomplished: The lie or misstatement will have had its effect as the candidate dissimulates, ducks and denies.

Not a good way to resolve the conflict in voters who haven’t known which way to go.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email is fsmith@wypr.org.