Sheila Dixon peers down from her red frames, calling on the senior East Baltimoreans like a beloved teacher before an attentive class.

“What can I do for you?” she asks, standing before the residents of the Lakewood Apartments complex in Berea. One by one, they answer. More senior programming. More visits from city officials. Less litter.

In settings like this one, it’s clear why Dixon is still renowned for her reputation as an effective executive. When she is met with silence, she gently probes her audience. “What else?” she asks expectantly, looking from resident to resident. “How else can I help you?”

The message to Lakewood residents: She loves the grind of government operations and can’t wait to get back to rooting out dysfunction.

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For the third time since leaving City Hall amid a corruption scandal, Dixon is running to become mayor once again. The 70-year-old is not much younger than some of the seniors seated before her. She’s a soon-to-be grandmother with a comfortable pension. She exercises religiously, prioritizes family, organizes voting blocks for her favorite competitors on “The Voice.”

“When she was mayor, she was a darn good mayor,” says Gerina Franklin, one of roughly four dozen senior residents that came to meet Dixon on a warm afternoon last week.

Like many Dixon voters, Franklin believes Dixon was a competent, earnest mayor, beleaguered by overzealous prosecutors. “That scandal didn’t bother me personally, because all of them — all the politicians — dip into something,” she said. The retiree believes Dixon was targeted: “It was unfair, is what it was.”

Dixon’s base was fervent enough to secure 51,716 write-in votes in the 2016 general election. Mayor Brandon Scott narrowly bested her in the 2020 Democratic primary, earning a few thousand more ballots than Dixon.

Now that voters can compare the duo’s mayoral records, Dixon is betting that her legacy as an operations wonk will convince those who never voted for her before to cast a ballot in her name.

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“I have this base because people really feel my passion and they feel my desire to want the best for the city, and work hard for it,” she says. “And that means working for the new votes.”

Mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon speaks to community members on North Lakewood Avenue on April 30, 2024.
Mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon speaks to community members on North Lakewood Avenue on April 30, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman)

The first Madam Mayor

Dixon was entering her 20th year on the Baltimore City Council when Mayor Martin O’Malley won the 2006 gubernatorial election and left City Hall for the governor’s mansion. City Council President Dixon was automatically elevated to mayor in January 2007, becoming Baltimore’s first female chief executive. That spring, city voters handed her a decisive win in the Democratic primary, and she sailed to victory in the November election.

She worked to lessen the impact of O’Malley’s zero tolerance policing, first with the hiring of Frederick Bealefeld III as police commissioner. He began prioritizing the arrests of those behind homicides and shootings; homicides dropped. She introduced a single-stream curbside recycling program and launched the free Charm City Circulator bus route. She became a popular mayor, known to pull cigarettes from the mouths of constituents and drop in unannounced on city operations workers’ shifts.

Bealefeld attributes their success to her ability to find “brilliant people she believed in” to run agencies, and her trust and support in them to do their jobs.

“I came to work every day and worked my ass off, and we got results,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry about some chess game or guess what her political moves were, three moves from now.”

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In 2008, news broke — when state prosecutors raided her home — of a yearslong probe into her financial and personal affairs. State officials investigated her romantic relationship with Ronald Lipscomb, a developer who won multiple city projects while Dixon served as council president and chair of the city spending board, as well as her votes to award a contract to a company that employed her sister and no-bid contracts to her campaign manager.

In January 2009, Dixon was indicted on 12 charges, including felony theft, fraud and misconduct in office. Prosecutors argued that Lipscomb gave Dixon more than $15,000 in gifts, and that Dixon improperly used gift cards originally solicited for needy families.

Despite a full-blown media circus, Dixon did not screech to a halt. She proclaimed her innocence and continued routine city operations, largely unfazed during public appearances.

A few months later, a judge dismissed five of the 12 charges. Prosecutors reassembled and issued two new indictments in July 2009 with nine criminal counts. They included perjury for failure to report Lipscomb’s gifts and theft for improperly using gift cards.

One charge stuck. In December 2009, a jury of 12 Baltimoreans found her guilty on one count of misdemeanor embezzlement tied to the gift cards. Other charges were tossed by the court. The jury acquitted her of felony theft and misconduct in office charges, and could not reach a verdict on another embezzlement charge. She later entered an Alford plea to a single perjury charge that was scheduled for a separate trial.

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As part of a plea deal, Dixon resigned from office in 2010. During a sentencing hearing where she was sentenced to $45,000 in restitution and 500 hours of community service, a judge told her she always would carry “a badge of dishonor.”

Fourteen years later, Dixon acknowledges the corruption scandal still follows her, especially in the press.

“That’s the first thing they mention,” she said last week, sitting at a table at her office at the Maryland Minority Contractors Association. “In my obituary, when I pass, we know what the media’s going to have in there.”

Sometimes, Dixon is contrite. In a September op-ed for The Baltimore Sun, the same day she announced her 2024 campaign, she wrote that “matters of the heart lead me astray” and apologized for the “pain that it caused to my beloved Baltimore.”

Other times, she says the public doesn’t have the full picture — but doesn’t produce receipts. She says she’s thinking of writing a book with the entire story.

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“If I win this election, I’m gonna work on that book while I’m in office,” she said.

‘Where her heart is’

She doesn’t have a title in mind for the potential literary work, but she says it will tell the story of her life, not just her political career.

Dixon was raised in West Baltimore’s Ashburton neighborhood, the third of four siblings. They worshipped at an Episcopalian Church and attended Sunday school, “but I didn’t have a relationship with God,” she remembered. “Going to church was just something you were supposed to do.”

While studying early childhood education at Towson University, she struggled with her faith and mulled converting to Islam.

“I was struggling,” she remembered, “looking around me and wondering why people would suffer so much if there was a God.”

In the midst of her reckoning, she met Bishop Frank Reid, who led West Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church for more than two decades. She is now a volunteer and trustee at Bethel, where she staffs funerals and assists in managing church property.

Dixon has lived in the same Hunting Ridge home since she was mayor. She is twice divorced. Her first marriage to Mark Smith started and ended in the mid-1980s; she married Thomas Hampton in 1988 and divorced him in 2006. The two had two children, a daughter and a son.

Her daughter is expecting Dixon’s first grandchild, a baby girl, in July. “I’d like to be called grandmother. None of those new names do it for me,” she told the senior residents in Berea, smiling.

Dixon became an elementary school teacher after graduating from Towson in 1976 and later worked at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development as a trade specialist. That experience informed her political emphasis on small businesses and entrepreneurship.

After leaving office, she joined and still works for the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, a nonprofit that mentors and advocates for women- and minority-owned businesses. The slog of the city’s permitting process for new businesses during the pandemic was a tipping point in her decision to run for office again, she said.

Dixon was appointed by officials in Baltimore County to a commission to improve procurement standards. Phil Andrews, a procurement attorney who served with Dixon on the board, remembered her as a sharp and effective presence on the board.

“She was able to walk back in and work with local government, no problem,” he said.

As far as Fred Bealefeld, who served as Baltimore Police Commissioner under Dixon, understands it, that is all Dixon has ever aspired to.

“What office has she ran for?” he asked. “She’s only runs for mayor because that’s where her heart is. I’ve never heard her talk about Annapolis or D.C.”

A third campaign with new momentum

This cycle marks Dixon’s third race to reclaim her former office. Its contours are distinct. The Sheila Base, as Baltimore politicos like to call the older Black women voters who are her consistent supporters, has expanded.

Unlike 2016 and 2020, she has enthusiastic endorsements from authorities like Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates and Sheriff Sam Cogen. Thiru Vignarajah, an attorney who has always captured solid support in several citywide runs, dropped out of the competitive primary and endorsed her last week.

Polls suggest another tight race. An early April survey from Goucher College Poll and The Baltimore Banner found that 40% of likely Democratic voters polled said they would reelect Scott, while 32% said they would support Dixon. Vignarajah netted 10% of likely voters.

In 2020, Scott rose to victory thanks to an electorate hungry for change. The coronavirus pandemic was only a few months old and wreaking havoc. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh was serving time for a fraud scheme. Then-City Council President Scott positioned himself as an energetic sea change.

Now, Dixon’s campaign messaging is simple: Anything Scott can do, I can do better.

Dixon has decried the cabinet turnover that littered the beginning of Scott’s tenure, and said she would rebuild City Hall — though she hasn’t specified who she’d bring onboard. Scott hosted 90-day city services blitzes to close potholes and pave roads; Dixon has said that “every day of my tenure would be a blitz.” Scott supports efforts to redevelop Harborplace and build about 900 apartments along the waterfront; Dixon has called for fewer apartments.

At debates, she has said that City Hall needs an adult in the room — rhetoric that Scott, who recently turned 40 and welcomed his first child with his fiancée, has no patience for. In 2020, he and other mayoral hopefuls largely avoided references to her corruption probe. This cycle, Scott and his proxies are quick to remind voters of “the corrupt, broken ways of the past.”

Her opponents are also eager to point to the local powerbrokers funding a super PAC that supports her candidacy.

David Smith, chairman of the conservative TV network Sinclair Inc. and co-owner of The Baltimore Sun, and Jack Luetkemeyer, a real estate developer, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads that argue Scott is incompetent.

Sheila Dixon stands behind a lectern in a red suit jacket, wearing sunglasses and smiling broadly. To her left, Eric Costello wears a dark suit and white shirt.
Councilman Eric Costello endorses Sheila Dixon for mayor on November 16, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman)

Before throwing his weight behind Dixon, Vignarajah suggested that Dixon agreed to a set of policies from the super PAC funders. By law, super PACs and campaigns are prohibited from coordinating with each other.

“Sheila hasn’t changed. Her price just went up,” Vignarajah said in April. The attorney changed his tune after he announced his endorsement. “I want somebody who is ready to deliver now, that is not quite literally learning on the job,” he said at a news conference last week.

Dixon, adamantly, has denied an agreement.

“I don’t know David Smith. And David Smith doesn’t control what I do and how I do it,” she said at the same event.

After the Scott campaign said Vignarajah offered his endorsement in exchange for becoming police commissioner or schools CEO, Dixon denied promising Vignarajah a job in her administration: “I can say unequivocally that no promises were made regarding future employment with my administration.”

At a campaign rally the evening of Vignarajah’s endorsement, Councilman Eric Costello said Dixon “lives in the real world” and excelled as mayor because of her ability to make pragmatic decisions.

“True leaders like Mayor Dixon can find a way to work with anyone who wants the best for Baltimore,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon speaks to community members on North Lakewood Avenue on April 30, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

The challenge for a challenger

Like all challengers, Dixon is generally not afforded the same time on television screens and radios that incumbent City Hall officials are as they conduct routine business.

Never was that gap wider than the days and weeks after the Key Bridge Collapse, which left six construction workers dead and the Port of Baltimore nearly shut down. As Scott went viral for his response to the collapse and was photographed alongside Gov. Wes Moore and President Joe Biden, Dixon and other non-incumbents like former Gov. Larry Hogan were on the other side of the caution tape that closed off areas to those who weren’t emergency personnel or elected leaders.

City residents gave Scott high remarks for his response to the bridge collapse: 61% of them approved of his efforts, according to the April Banner/Goucher poll.

Dixon has continued to make inroads in the way she knows best: in apartment complexes, in churches, in community gathering spaces.

As campaign staffers pass Doritos and Capri Suns around the events lounge of the Lakewood Apartments complex, Dixon continues to gently quiz them. “Who else has been out here to visit you?” she asks the group. “How’s your councilman? How about your delegates?”

A few longtime residents murmur that they don’t recall any elected officials stopping by recently. “Brandon was here during COVID,” one resident remembers. “He dropped off masks.”

Dixon nodded. Walking slowly through the room, she promised to nudge East Baltimore officials to drop by and share information about city-sponsored senior programming.

“We would just like for you to visit again,” Gerina Franklin said.

“No matter what happens, I will come back,” Dixon told her.

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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