With a wall of supporters behind her in Druid Heights, Sheila Dixon announced Thursday she’ll run for mayor after months of hints that she would make another bid for City Hall’s top office.
Her declaration makes her the second major candidate to enter the race and set up a rematch with Mayor Brandon Scott, who entered office in 2020 after narrowly besting Dixon in the Democratic primary. In deep-blue Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 10 to 1, a victory in the May 14 primary election is as good as winning in November.
“I look at city government today and I don’t recognize it anymore,” Dixon said to a crowd of several dozen supporters who braved sweltering heat to attend. “I see firsthand that it’s letting people down daily.”
Dixon is well known to many city voters as the first female mayor of Baltimore who exited a productive term in office in disgrace, following a conviction of embezzlement in 2009 after she took gift cards intended for the poor. She stepped down in 2010, after pleading guilty to perjury in a separate case.
Dixon held office for more than 20 years before her resignation. She entered the City Council in 1987, representing West Baltimoreans until 1999, when she became City Council president. When Martin O’Malley resigned after being elected governor in November 2006, Dixon automatically replaced him. She successfully ran for a full term as mayor in 2007, after selling her vision of a “cleaner, greener, safer” Baltimore.
Her career came grinding to halt after a jury of 12 city residents found her guilty for misusing Target and Best Buy gift cards donated by a developer that were intended to be distributed to needy families. Instead, the former mayor spent about $500 in gift cards to purchase a game system and other items for her family and staff.
For years, Dixon has walked a line between contrition and avoiding responsibility when it came to her criminal record, saying frequently during her past two campaigns that while she was sorry for “the mistakes I’ve made,” the public did not have the full story.
She was more candid in an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun on Thursday morning
“I’ve been told that my prior efforts to apologize for the past have fallen short,” she wrote. “I write to you today to eliminate all ambiguity or questions of where I stand and have stood since I left office. I let matters of the heart lead me astray once before, and for that, and the pain that it caused to my beloved Baltimore, I am truly sorry.”
Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, said Dixon will not have to worry about introducing herself to voters, but “reintroducing herself and perhaps changing some of the negative attribution that people may have about her.”
The question this time around, Kromer said, “is how many more voters are willing to move on from what Dixon did.”
Dixon’s conviction will surely be a talking point on the campaign trail: Scott has already begun talking about his record of trustworthiness.
“My message to residents is that, one, I’ve done this job with the utmost integrity. I have never had anyone been able to talk about my work ethic, about my integrity,” Scott said at a news conference on Wednesday after being asked why residents should re-elect him. Second, he continued, “I ran on reducing violent crime in Baltimore, and homicides are down 20%, shootings down 10%.”
On Thursday, Dixon took her own shots at Scott.
“I truly believe that all of Baltimore’s mayor’s have been good people and have come into the job with the right intention,” she said. “But as a manager, you have to juggle multiple things at one time and you got to make sure that all of these things are moving as best as possible.”
The unshakeable ‘Sheila Base’
Unlike most challengers to an incumbent, Dixon is entering her race with a solid base of supporters who eagerly cast ballots for her in both 2020 and 2016, when she narrowly lost the primaries to Scott and former Mayor Catherine Pugh, respectively.
Those voters are largely older, Black residents, a group that city political analysts have long called “supervoters” due to their consistently high turnout. Scott eked out his win — 29.6% of the vote to Dixon’s 27.5% — thanks to a diverse coalition of Black and white voters who varied in age. A slew of other candidates, including Mary Miller and Thiru Vignarajah, divvied up the remaining third of the vote, which included many white residents. Miller and Vignarajah have yet to say anything about their 2024 plans.
“The dynamics of the race to me are going to be fully determined by whether it’s a head-to-head race or whether there’s another candidate who can chip away at some of the vote share — not just a single-digit vote share, but a double-digit vote share,” Kromer said.
This time around, Dixon will likely benefit from an influx of cash. A super PAC formed by employees of Adeo Advocacy, a prominent consulting firm that fundraises for Gov. Wes Moore, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, will support her candidacy.
Dixon has just under $5,000 in her campaign account, according to the most recently filed state Board of Elections data, which is more than nine months old. Scott reported having nearly $451,000.
Colm O’Comartun, who served as an aide to Martin O’Malley during the Democrat’s tenure as mayor and governor, voted for Dixon in 2020 and said he’ll do so again this spring. Under Mayor Scott, a culture of excuses has been able to permeate City Hall’s narrative, he said.
“Other people have inherited a very dysfunctional city before, and been able to lead their way out of it,” said O’Comartun, who now operates a government relations consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Dixon “gathered together good people, held them accountable, and they went to work every day.”
Wanda Heard, retired chief judge who served 20 years in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, lives in the same West Baltimore neighborhood as Dixon. She knew her as a neighbor for more than two decades, but has not supported her until this cycle. In 2020, after she retired, Heard chose to support Vignarajah, but said she eventually became disillusioned by him. As she watched Mayor Scott run the city, she was unimpressed.
“I do believe he loves Baltimore. I believe he’s done his best, but his best isn’t enough,” she said. “We need someone with the breadth and depth of experience to correct the ills of Baltimore City, and that person is Sheila Dixon.”
Heard described herself as a judge of second chances.
“The best of us can say when we learn from our mistakes, we become better,” she said. “Mayor Dixon is armed with the experience of having faced her mistakes. And the fact that she is willing to come back and help this city to become what it’s known for? I have no problem wholeheartedly supporting her.”.