The first in a series of interviews with the top-polling contenders for the Democratic nomination for mayor.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon knows she has to work to regain the city’s trust, and she knows there are some who won’t forgive her. Many still remember Dixon’s 2009 conviction on misdemeanor embezzlement for taking gift cards meant for poor families in the city, ultimately leading to her resignation. She was also acquitted on two counts of felony theft and one count of misconduct in office.
“I know that gaining the trust of the general public in Baltimore City is a challenge,” she said during a phone recent interview with Baltimore Fishbowl. “And as I’ve said on this campaign and as I’ve said since 2016, I know that I have to be as transparent and upfront and honest to the public, and I’m doing that.”
She hopes people also remember her stewardship of government from 2007-2010, a time during which the city’s murder rate declined from 282 to 224 (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took over in February 2010 after Dixon’s resignation). And she developed an effort to make a “cleaner, greener” Baltimore through expanded recycling and a sustainability program.
It appears many residents still do. Dixon narrowly lost the Democratic primary election in 2016–a contest she says she “probably won”–to Catherine Pugh, who resigned in 2019 following a corruption scandal related to her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books.
During our interview, Dixon, who now works at the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, talked about how city services have fallen off and her plans to effectively run the government, as she says she did during the Great Recession that took hold in 2008.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Baltimore Fishbowl: You narrowly lost the 2016 primary for mayor. When did you decide you would run again and why?
Sheila Dixon: So I probably won the election in 2016, but not being able to afford to have the recount and the cost that we did spend in attorneys to really have that process evaluated–that’s neither here nor there, because I try not to look back.
I’ve had people over the last four years who stopped me in the supermarket, in the shopping center, or they see me driving and they’re blowing their horns, encouraging me to run and saying they needed me back, things were really falling apart in the city. Crime was out of control. City was getting really dirty. I can go on and on and on. And people saw what I was able to do with a short period of time, and they also felt my love and commitment to the city.
But it wasn’t until, probably in 2019, that I began to really focus on did I really want to come back. I just saw things really falling apart. Just aside from what happened to Catherine, because, I mean, that didn’t help me, but just the management of what I saw happening in city government, and the fact that there were real concerns.
It’s one thing to want to be mayor and understand city government, but it’s another thing to really know how to do it, really be able to manage. People enter with these ideas, and then when you get into public life, you say, Wait, I’m not able to do this this way? Oh, why can’t I do this this way?
And so part of it was, we put in multiple infrastructures that if mayors after me would have saw the benefits and the results, and built on those, I just believe we would not be in the situation we’re in today. And I’ll give an example. In our crime plain, we were focused on getting illegal guns off of the street, focused on the most violent offenders. And we were focused on those individuals that were on probation, finding alternatives for them, working with our multiple partners and the state’s attorney’s office, parole and probation, the court system, with our regional partners, with Baltimore County, with Maryland State Police, through the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. So not just trying to lock everybody up, but really come up with a cohesive plan that we can focus on systemic things, getting individuals who are coming out of prison, individuals that were paroled, kids that were having challenges in school and dropping out, have them have an action plan for their lives.
So seeing all that fall apart, going through multiple police commissioners after Fred Bealefeld. Officers that I talked to were frustrated, were leaving or being asked to leave, sometimes because of politics, not because of policies and looking at an officer’s record.
I was running government during a recession. And we were cleaning up the city. We were working on developing affordable housing projects outside of downtown in neighborhoods like Frankford Estates, like Uplands and other areas, being creative with attracting businesses–it hurts my heart to this day–like Target that we worked so hard on bringing here. Like doing business with minority companies, streamlining systems as we continue to build and provide quality services.
And I wasn’t seeing that, because when I left office, I began to work with minority companies, particularly African-American companies, who wanted to do business with the city, but also working with them in Baltimore County and other areas, trying to help them to grow their businesses, help them with capital and other means. And it seems like there was nothing but roadblocks. I’m not sure what caused that.
BFB: I did want to ask about your reference to the election at the start. I’m guessing that’s referring to the 1,700 ballots that were ruled to have been handled improperly. Are you convinced that those all would have gone in your favor or that would have been enough to overturn the result?
SD: You know, again, I’m not looking back. I don’t know. But there were so many hiccups in that election. You know, things that we saw, things that we informed the board of elections, things that were happening that shouldn’t have been happening and that the board of elections, particularly the city, should had gotten on top of.
When you pay people to go in to vote for you, when you take them into the election place during early voting. And we saw this, but again, I’m not going back. It obviously wasn’t meant to be. It is what it is.
It’s a learning experience. We’re now in a whole new process for this election. Nobody expected COVID-19 to happen and this pandemic.
And so this process, it has never been done before.
BFB: You touched on some of the work you’ve been doing in between campaigns. What have you done in that time to stay politically engaged?
SD: When you work with companies, you can’t escape not being politically engaged because you have to deal with people in public office sometimes when you’re trying to get issues resolved. So in that respect, the companies that I work with, we’ve had meetings with people in the city, with people in Baltimore County, in Howard County.
I’ve worked with a number of individuals who were running for public office because of the base and support that I have in the city. I helped Antonio Hayes with the Senate seat, I helped Tony Bridges in the House of Delegates. I’ve helped a number of other candidates who weren’t successful.
For the last six years, I worked on a nonprofit board that I co-chaired. We were in Zone 17 working to create a wellness and empowerment center. And we had a $3 million capital campaign; we finished with phase one, going to phase two, where we’re trying to finish up the renovation of it so we can bring in resources and services that can help people to navigate the right programs to help them. I’ve been active in that respect, as well as with my church. I’m very active as a Stewardess, as a trustee. So I stay pretty busy.
It’s just part of my DNA. I’m not a person that just sits back. I want to be able to help out and advise based on my experience, as well as roll up my sleeves and get engaged and involved in things that are going on.
BFB: When you talked with Baltimore Fishbowl in 2016, you said you’re asking people in the city to forgive you for your 2009 conviction on embezzlement for stealing gift cards meant for poor families. Do you have reason to believe now in 2020 that more people have forgiven you since then?
SD: Well, first of all, it was a misdemeanor, and if I hadn’t disclosed the relationship, I would be retiring right now. I know that gaining the trust of the general public in Baltimore City is a challenge. And as I’ve said on this campaign and as I’ve said since 2016, I know that I have to be as transparent and upfront and honest to the public, and I’m doing that.
I know that I’m going to have to work three times harder than anybody else to gain that trust back of the general public. I mean, I think I’ve gotten more support.
Some people over the years, based on different forums that I’ve been involved in, have been able to be open and share more with people about what actually happened. And so in that respect, I’m gaining people’s trust back as well.
And I know that there are others that will probably never trust me, but that’s not going to stop me from being the best that I can as mayor for all citizens of Baltimore.
BFB: Many of the contenders in the field are pitching themselves as outsiders to city hall or as politicians who can take Baltimore in a new direction. And because you’ve held this office before, your campaign is inherently a return to the old guard in some respects. What’s your pitch to voters on why going back to what you were able to do as mayor can also move the city forward now?
SD: Well, first of all, I might be the old guard as far as being in public office, but I never was a politician. If I was a politician, I’d probably, as I said, be retiring. I’m a public servant.
Even though some folks who are in this race say that they’re not politicians, if you look at people’s records, you have one individual that worked for Commissioner Davis, who was brought here from Anne Arundel County and lived in Baltimore County, didn’t even live in Baltimore City, who was double dipping at that job. Who was still on the payroll for Anne Arundel County. If that’s not political, what is it?
You have another candidate who worked for the Obama administration during the time that I was mayor, and I never met her before. And we had a whole strategy and plan where we went after every penny of stimulus money from every agency that we could in order to deal with the infrastructure of city government–roads, bridges. We went after any penny we could get for schools, for public safety. And I’d never, ever been in contact with that candidate. And we tracked every dollar. So I don’t know where she was working, but she wasn’t working to bring money and resources to Baltimore City.
I could go on and on and on about every candidate who says that they’re not part of the old guard. I also realize that I can’t go back, I have to go forward.
None of the candidates can go in day one and move into city government and understand how the agencies work. We don’t have time for a learning curve. None of them handled a government under a recession–and this is going to be triple what the recession was that I had–and is able to do more with less.
Everybody has their themes and what they’re sharing to get across to the public. The key for me is taking the politics out of how city government runs. It’s also creating the kind of infrastructure and working with our people to get them to understand that when you create infrastructures of success, you build on it. You don’t throw it away because it was someone else’s idea. That’s part of the weaknesses that we experience in this city.
We should not be 20 years from now talking about the same thing that we’re talking about now, being the most dangerous today in America; being a filthy, dirty city; people are frustrated about doing business with the city.
BFB: On the subject of the pandemic, what will your administration do to help residents, businesses and nonprofits after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed?
SD: We put out a comprehensive response to COVID-19. First and foremost, my heart goes out to the many individuals who’ve lost loved ones. This experience, I don’t think we ever would have expected to happen. And so I applaud the leadership of Gov. Hogan in making sure that the public is being informed and that we are dealing with this issue very safely.
I would establish an external city COVID-19 advisory committee, which would request from the governor an individual to serve to join us, so that the state and local government response are coordinated better. I’m going to continue to reduce crime and keep Baltimore safe. The coronavirus has compounded the heartbreak of losing individuals here in the city.
I’m going to establish an effective policy where we need to look at city government internally to make sure that we are keeping our buildings safe, because the public has to deal with city government, and we don’t want to limit services. But we have to make sure we’re doing it in a responsive way.
As it relates to public safety in particular, we need to coordinate our efforts with not only our police department, but with school police, Maryland state troopers and MTA to assist us in their respective areas within the city. Because New York’s crime is down during this virus. Our crime is like steady.
I want to put together an effort dealing with childcare and education. We might have to look at the potential of shifts for kids so that we won’t have the number of kids, 20, 30 kids in a classroom at the same time. One of the things that Detroit did, and I would move quickly on this, is they were able to get $23 million worth of computers and tablets and high speed Internet for all their kids from K-12 in public school. And we need to follow suit and support that, because we still have challenges with the internet divide where people still don’t have access to that.
I’m going to rebuild the Baltimore economy by addressing the economic harm from this pandemic. I’m going to look at the way that we created a task force as well as a team to deal with the recession back in 2008, and use that same model to go after federal support as well as state support. We’ve got to maximize that and create a greater Baltimore economic recovery team to really focus on that, we’re gonna track that effort. And then for small businesses, we have to look at how we can support our restaurants, hotels, our little shops, boutique stores, because it’s crucial so that we can provide potential grants and loans to companies so they can stay afloat. I’m going to do a rebuilding of Baltimore’s economy, that’s going to be another priority. It’s so important.
And then last but not least, which is probably most important, people finally see that there is a division of health care and health care accessibility, particularly with the African-American community And so in the health department we’re going to create a COVID-19 group–and not only that, but any infectious disease–so that we can begin to work with our partners. We should be the healthiest city in America if we work with our great institutions that we have here. I’ve said this before and I’ll continue to say it, we have to open up those avenues for people to get access to health care, to find physicians, to be able to do preventive measures. It’s so important. Part of our challenge is we haven’t looked at more preventive measures for drug addiction, alcoholism, smoking and things that cause heart disease and issues in breathing. So all those will be part of it.
BFB: Baltimore mayors have grappled with the city’s violent crime for years. And I think a lot of people remember your administration’s success in that area. Since 2015, the annual homicide rate has surpassed 300 people killed. Why is your plan the best to solve violent crime in the city?
SD: It’s the best plan because I look at things holistically. You cannot segment out one thing over another. We’ve got to do preventive things as well as focus on immediate things that are going on in our community. And part of what I have been challenging, and I had this meeting with the governor, is that the police department has a role but there are other public safety organizations, like the state’s attorney’s office, parole and probation, the courts. All of them were on the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that we used to have that was demolished under the Pugh administration.
People have to be at the table and stepping up and doing their role. And then we really look at each other face to face and say to each other, Why are we doing what we’re doing? Are we just doing this to go through the motions or to criticize each other? Where are we weak? What do we need to do to strengthen your department, my department? What do we need to do to strengthen the systems that we create in order to eliminate public safety, along with putting initiatives together to prevent it?
We had a public safety academy, which was for police, paramedics and fire, because one of the criticisms is finding local individuals who want to go into public safety, it’s a noble profession. What happened to that academy? It got eliminated. Can you imagine the number of young people we could have attracted into that program that today could be serving their community, because they had a better understanding than people you bring in from the outside? It’s going to take a balance of that. It’s going to take some consistency. I mean, how many police commissioners have we gone through?
And in having that consistency, our officers have to know the plan. You can’t put a plan out and not engage the FOP and your officers. That officer on the corner has to know the plan. If you walk up to him and say, What is our crime-fighting plan? They should know that plan just as well as the police commissioner. And I think there’s a lack of communication. The FOP, they’re not going away.
There’s another piece that I’m going to deal with immediately. The first day in office, I will have a sit down with the law department and FOP and the police department to resolve this 10-year lawsuit where officers signed up for 20 years and now have to do 25 years. We gotta get that resolved. We have to make sure that we’re on point with the timeline in the courts with the consent decree. We have to get our officers back out and realize that when you engage citizens in a positive manner, in a customer friendly manner, you gain that trust back as well.
BFB: You alluded to the crime plan just now. The current mayor and police commissioner have said that the department’s plan to curb violent crime is working. And yet homicides are currently right around the same level they were last year. Do you feel the plan is working?
SD: Well, we still have the same numbers as we had last year. And keep in mind, for the last several months, people were supposed to be staying at home. New York during this time–and I just go back to New York because my daughter lives in New York and I try to track what’s going on–their crime has drastically gone down. So something’s not right. Our crime should not be out of control. People should not be out on the street.
A gentleman called me who lives in Halethorpe. He called me because his son came in the city to visit a friend. He moved his son to Halethrope to get away from gangs. Twenty-one years old, would have experienced his twenty-second birthday. He was with his friend who was a part of a gang who got shot, and because he saw it, they shot him. But they have another friend who saw it, who’s a part of it, but he won’t come and speak. He won’t come in and tell the police who did it and what happened. We’ve got to start standing up, we’ve got to stop losing.
So I’m not sure, I’ll be honest with you. I’m trying to be diplomatic and kind to the current mayor and the police commissioner. But if the plan is working, how come we’re not seeing the kind of results? And I know it’s going to take time, from their perspective, but we should be seeing better results than what we are seeing.
BFB: How would you improve and expand access throughout Baltimore to public transit, bicycling, walking and other transportation options not based around single occupancy vehicles?
SD: We started that whole initiative with every road that was resurfaced we would put bike lanes in. Some communities don’t want him, some do. Some areas it doesn’t make sense why they’re there.
We have to create a regional effort and sit down with MTA so MTA understands that we know our city and our various counties, and we got to get people in a timely basis, from point A to point B. And we’ve got to do it in a way that’s strategic. And so I believe that through the regional council, which many of the county execs from this region sit on, we have to sit down with the state because the state handles transportation and figure out a better way to make these connections.
I created the Charm City Circulator. The Circulator was created based on using parking revenues from the city-owned parking garage. And so that was created so that when people came into the city, if you came from a particular area, if you got off the light rail, you could then cut back to the Circulator in the downtown area.
And of course it’s expanded a little since then. But I don’t know if realistically we can expand the Circulator all over the entire city and create our own transportation system, because it is the state who is responsible for that.
I worked with the legislators as well as our regional partners to come up with a plan to to look at what best ways we can to utilize light rail. I was a big advocate, I pushed hard for the Red Line. It did not happen.
We gotta work with our federal partners to look at more resources so we can create that Red Line and Green Line to give people options and not have to drive. Right now the makeup of the city and the way that people come into the city in particular, it’s not as convenient to look at public transit versus other cities that I’ve traveled to.
And we’ve got to make it more attractive and convenient and provide incentives to people who come into the city, in particular, to make other choices for modes of transportation. But again, since COVID-19 has happened, and what we’re going through right now, it might be a little bit further out to deal with that, because until we know that this virus has subsided to the point where people feel safe, it’s going to be a challenge.
BFB: The area has been transfixed with the “squeegee kid” debate about window washers on Baltimore streets. What would your administration do to connect people who are eager to work with well-paying jobs?
SD: I work with, as I said, companies, and the one thing that I realize is in this industry, particularly in construction, as well as IT and health, we’ve got to start early on with training opportunities for individuals who are looking to change careers or get out of the service industry or kids that are coming out of school who don’t necessarily want to go to college.
We have to have these systems already in place before coming into high school so that we can give them the right type of training that’s needed. There are a number of companies who see the need because of their workforce, so they are setting up systems now to create training programs. We have to look at what training programs are working and what are not, and then put the resources behind those that are working and then connect people. But we have to start early. Every kid, before graduating, should have a plan of action.
Right now the education system is not equipped with the updated technology that’s needed for young people to go into coding or to go IT or go into healthcare billing.
All of these things need to be connected. And then we need to have our schools open longer in the evenings so that adults can come in through this community school concept that I had to utilize those services as well.
BFB: While many major cities have seen population growth in recent years, the number of people living in Baltimore continues to decline. What are your main strategies for building healthy neighborhoods throughout the city and making sure that investment is not concentrated in just a few areas so that current residents can participate in any resurgence?
SD: Well, first, we need to keep people here in Baltimore before we can begin to really attract. And we’re losing population, not just because of high property tax, but because of crime and because of education. Generally, if you look at a family with young children, once they get of a certain age, they want to leave Baltimore.
And in the past, Baltimore County was the area where a lot of city residents had moved to, but because Baltimore County schools are not as great as they used to be, people are looking at Howard County, Anne Arundel County, other counties. So we’ve got to get a better handle on our schools, and that’s a big piece.
Do we need to reduce property tax? Yes. But to be honest with you, for every penny that we reduce in the property tax, that takes away over $400,000. So what that equates to is that you’re going to then have to decrease the kind of services you provide. Down the road, we’re going to need to reduce property tax more, but there are other taxes that we could rescind that could help people to stay in the city. We have the container tax. We increase, on a regular basis, parking fees. We need to work with our state to do something about car insurance.
So if we can reduce some of these other taxes, I believe that we will not only retain people, but we can attract people. And then we have to begin to work outside of the downtown area. As an example, over here in Edmonson Village, where Uplands finished Phase 1 and allowed that to develop into Phase 2 and 3, where we tore down properties. We needed to create more green space and look at smaller communities and neighborhoods.
The land bank, which is something that I had pushed and that I believe really helped Detroit and Chicago, I want to reintroduce into the council, because that’s legislation where we can offset all these vacant properties, over 17,000, maybe even more now. When you offset it to an individual who wants to redevelop a house or up to a small developer who wants to redevelop an area, we clear away the land, we give the property to them or the land, and then they leverage that at the bank. We’ve got to get very creative in how we do this.
And the biggest issue, too, is we have to streamline processes when people want to do business with city government. I just met with some companies doing a development project. He put in his paperwork for permits in September. We’re now in May–that’s too long.
And in talking to this individual, you can see that they were very frustrated. He said, That’s why people don’t want to do business here or come here. And that’s unacceptable. We need to do a better job. We need to make sure that we provide, no matter how minimal it is, quality services to all our citizens.
So we need to retain and then we can begin to attract. You know, D.C., we had a whole initiative where we were attracting people from D.C., because it’s so expensive to live in D.C., with incentives to live near our MARC train stations, one in West as well as Penn Station. And again, that was a really aggressive effort that, you know, I don’t know which administration, but it was like, OK, we’re not going to do that anymore. I mean, that’s a great marketing plan to attract people here.
And work with our colleges. A lot of young people come here to go to college. How can we retain them here? We had created a fellows program, it was a paid college internship program where, depending on what your background was, you would go into the respective agencies and you would identify something that you saw was a challenge. You’d do a presentation. You then go begin to work on whatever that challenge is.
We were able to hire some of those college students, who ended up staying here, working in CitiStat, working at housing and different departments based on their background.
BFB: The acquisition of Legg Mason by Franklin Resources and merger of WillScott Corp. and Mobile Mini, Inc. signal the end of two corporate headquarters in the city. While that may not mean much to a lot of citizens, the city’s big companies, as the Baltimore Sun editorial board noted, are on boards for arts and education organizations and they’ve been leaders in the business community. Should the city be concerned by these transactions? And what will your administration do to attract the next Legg Mason and keep it?
SD: First of all, we need to understand what the challenges are early on. You have to communicate with the business community so you’re on top of it even before it happens. So you can be a problem-solver to figure out, Well, why this is happening?
The same with the Inner Harbor, Harbor Place. We should have been tracking that early on so that we saw that there were some problems financially in the particular property manager or whoever bought that company wasn’t really in that type of real estate of retail. Then we should have, through those various conferences we attend, been working with our partners, get on top of it to find the best fit for that.
You got to be out front on that. And again, we’ve got to change some of the image of the city. We have got to deal with the crime. We have to make sure that we’re business friendly and want to attract, not sell away anything. Because that sometimes happened. We have to be a responsible partner in marketing to companies and showing them, and having and creating the workforce where coming here, they know they can rely on a partner in city government.
BFB: The bill to build a new Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park recently became law. Aside from keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, what, if anything, should the city put forward when this new Pimlico track is being developed?
SD: We’ve got to work in that surrounding community to make sure that they benefit and that we can create the kind of infrastructure for new housing, for new markets. I created the Park Heights Renaissance to deal with some of the challenges that the southern part of Park Heights faced. And initially, our effort was to deal with human development issues, how to get people in engaged, how to clean up in that area, how to provide support and wraparound services.
The second phase was development. So the Renaissance has to be a part of it, because there’s been master plans done in the Park Heights community forever. And we need to be more aggressive in making sure we that southern end in particular is at the table and engaged and involved in what happens in that process. And that it’s not just about the Preakness and LifeBridge, but that those communities are able to get grants to straighten up their homes or clean up their homes or redevelop their homes, as well as deal with supermarkets and other shops that are going to be attractive in that community.
BFB: We just passed the five-year anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising. What lessons did you learn from that?
SD: The lesson that I learned from that is that over that period of time, after that incident happened, there were a lot of philanthropic and other groups that wanted to step up and put all the money and resources to help people in that community. A lot of that was talk and not much was done. And that’s a kind of disappointing aspect of when something happens in the city.
But the other lesson is that people did come out to try to help in that community. We’ve got to do a better job. Even though properties have been torn down in that area, we need to come up with a comprehensive plan that deals with quality housing for our seniors and people who maintain to live there. We have to make sure that we have the proper wraparound services for those residents, particularly those individuals who are battling with drug addiction.
We need to make sure that we just don’t use it as a dumping ground, because what’s happening is you got homeless shelters in that area, you have, oh shoot, half a dozen drug treatment facilities in that area. We have drug trade that is still going on in that area. That area right now should be the safest, cleanest area in West Baltimore because of the challenges that they’ve faced.
And so we have–when I say we, those powers of leadership that be, those people in leadership positions right now if they’re on the city council, if they’re mayor, if they’re city council president–failed that community. And it’s time now that we step out of our egos and really put the kind of resources needed and that they deserve to rebuild. The same way we did over in East Baltimore with the EBDI and all of that. We have the responsibility to step up and not just talk, but put action behind our words.
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