Sheila Dixon has one qualification that her opponents in the Baltimore mayoral race don’t: She’s already done the job. From 2007-2010, Dixon served as the city’s first female mayor. Two years into her term, she was indicted for fraud committed while in office. That case ended with her acquitted on the most serious counts of theft and misconduct while in office, but found guilty for misappropriating gift cards that were intended for poor residents. But after resigning as mayor as part of her plea agreement, Dixon continued to be involved in the city–and last year, she made it clear that she wanted her old job back.
In this crowded field, Dixon, 61, faces the unique challenge of building on her past expertise while also distancing herself from her past mistakes. We spoke with her about what she’s learned in recent years–and how she would govern the city, if given the chance to do so again:
Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
Never let a moment pass when you’re not using the talents God gave you to make a difference in the lives of others.
When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?
I’m my best self when I’m active and doing something positive in the community. I have high expectations for myself, my family and the city of Baltimore, as my children Jasmine and Joshua would tell you. Even back when I was a teacher, I saw talented students who were being held back so I would sneak them into a higher-level class so they could be challenged. When I see a problem I can help fix, I’ll lend a hand. I think that’s ultimately why being mayor of Baltimore was the best job I ever had. So when it comes to my goals, I already know what fulfills me and makes me happy. I believe I have the leadership and experience to help this city, so I’m going to do everything I can to make it a safer, healthier home for all of us.
What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?
Always believe that you can achieve whatever you want in life with faith and determination. Every person in Baltimore has talents to offer as we reclaim, revive and rebuild Baltimore. Some of the best ideas come from unexpected places. Baltimore needs the energies and talents of the young people who are committed to our great city, not just in public service, but in the private sector as well. Just as I learned how to be an effective member of the City Council by studying the process with mentors like Vera Hall and Du Burns, I have worked to teach and inspire our city’s new leadership. It gives me great pride to see my former staffers Antonio Hayes and Bill Ferguson in the Maryland General Assembly, working to strengthen their neighborhoods.
What is the best moment of the day?
Exercising brings me focus, energy and general wellness. I workout every day to keep up my energy and get a good start to my day. I haven’t biked much since I had a bad accident a year or so ago, but I will be out there again this Spring. But my favorite part of the day is usually when I check in with my kids. My daughter Jasmine lives in Harlem in New York City, but she came down for the holidays, and I get to talk to her on the phone almost every day to hear how she’s doing with her new job in her new city. And my son Josh at Morgan, living on campus during the semester but also when he comes on some weekends, so I’m very happy to get to spend time with him. I’m very proud of both of them and all they’ve accomplished. I can be hard on them sometimes, but they always end up exceeding my expectations. I’m very blessed to have them both.
What is on your bedside table?
Water, my phone, self-help books and the Bible.
What is your favorite local charity?
What makes Baltimore great is our people. Baltimoreans have built some innovative, effective non-profits that serve our community and strengthen families. It’s a testament to our city’s resolve. Personally, I give to Upward Bound, Bethel Outreach center, KAPPA Scholarship, Daniel Payne Scholarship amongst many others. But I wish I had the resources to give to so many more, including the Maryland Food Bank, McVets, Helping up Mission and No Boundaries Coalition. I encourage folks in Baltimore to continue to support the non-profit organizations that will help us reclaim, revive and rebuild Baltimore. I am also continue to play an active role in both Jasmine’s and Josh’s high school.
What’s one experience from your past that best prepared you to be mayor?
Probably being a mom. I love my kids, but I think every mom knows that sometimes your kids say they’ll do something and then they don’t do it or they forget. So you need to lay down the law a little bit, create accountability. And to be a good mayor, that’s what you need to do. It’s not enough to say you’re going to do something. You need to set expectations for how it will be done, when it will be done by, and who is going to make it happen. And if you do it right, everyone is on the same page and no one gets grounded.
This race has a lot of candidates. How do you plan to stand out from a dozen rivals?
It’s a good sign for Baltimore that we have a lot of candidates who are coming forward to be part of this process. This is a critical time for our city, so we should want a lot of minds invested in finding solutions. When it comes down to it, I believe I have the strongest plan to make the city safer for everyone, and I’m the only one in the position to really hit the ground running. I’m the only candidate who has done this job before, and when you’re talking about the big challenges we’re going to tackle, that’s important leadership experience. We need to get our city functioning again so we can get crime under control and make sure people in our local neighborhoods have the opportunities they need to provide for their families and get ahead.
You were convicted of embezzlement in 2009 and resigned your office in 2010. What did you learn from that experience?
By stepping forward to run for mayor now, I am asking the people of Baltimore to forgive me. There are angels in Baltimore – people who have hugged me, encouraged me and lifted my heart. I learned that in Baltimore when you get knocked down, there’s always someone there to help you back up. And so when you see a neighbor or a friend who is hurting, we should support them, help them get back on the right track. Our mistakes are not what define us as people or as a city. After the trial, it would have been easy to stay at home and hide, but I love Baltimore too much to do that. I still have a lot to offer this city, and so I’m going to keep putting myself out there and working my hardest to make Baltimore a better home and a better city for all of us.
You’re the only candidate who has already served as mayor. What would you do differently if elected this time?
When I was mayor, Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld and I implemented a three-point policing strategy that led to a historic 20-year drop in crime. We targeted the most violent offenders, got the illegal guns off the streets and implemented community policing, where officers walked the beat, building relationships with citizens. Now, I have an updated four- point plan to make this a safer city. We will get back to targeting the most violent offenders and stopping the deadly gun violence. But we will also commit to the highest standards for police and coordinate our city agencies in a holistic approach to promote public safety. And we need to work hand-in-hand with community, business and faith leaders to rebuild trust and make a healthier, safer city for all of us. I’ve learned a lot about cutting edge, innovative ideas to help improve our city, like aligning our public health strategy with our crime fighting strategy and using the power of data to target crimes and prevent them before they happen. We need to get back to a culture of accountability and service in city government and get our agencies back up and functioning again.
Baltimore saw record violence last year. How can we curb the bloodshed?
The highest priority for the mayor of Baltimore is to make this a safer city. This violence has to stop, and I have a four-point plan to make this city safer again for everyone. We need to target the most violent offenders and stop the deadly gun violence. We need to commit to the highest standards for police and coordinate our city agencies in a holistic approach to promote public safety. And we need to work hand-in-hand with community, business and faith leaders to rebuild trust and make a healthier, safer city for all of us. These four strategic objectives are the product of many meetings with experts in and out of city government who are committed, like I am, to making this city safer for every community.
The unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral showed mayoral leadership includes the ability to navigate a crisis. What is the most important thing for a mayor do in that situation? What would you have done differently if you were mayor on April 27?
When you’re the mayor, your first job is to make the city safer for all people, including both police officers and citizens like Freddie Gray. When a crisis hits, citizens look to the mayor for leadership, information, and guidance. I’m a hands-on leader. I will recruit the top talent to join city government and then I will give them the tools they need to provide excellent services to the people of Baltimore. When a crisis hits, we will all be engaged together to solve the problem, diffuse the situation and make our city safer.
Post-riots, there is talk of doubling down on efforts to address entrenched issues related to race, poverty, education and community-police relations. What is the first step you would take as mayor to “rebuild Baltimore?”
The first step in rebuilding our great city is by reducing crime. We need to target the most violent offenders and stop the deadly gun violence. As a city, the government has to commit itself to the highest standards of accountability, efficiency, and innovation to address the systemic issues that too many of our residents have had to deal with for far too long. Change doesn’t come from government; we can’t just rely on City Hall to solve our problems – change comes from us. That means every resident has a role to play in reclaiming, reviving, and rebuilding Baltimore.