Sheila Dixon, the first woman mayor in Baltimore history, stood trial in November 2009 on a series of charges that sound like an episode of The Wire, the acclaimed HBO series about the city where Dixon grew up and over which she now presides. Dixon had been accused of misconduct in office and the theft of gift cards intended for the city’s low-income residents; she faced another trial on perjury charges for her alleged failure to report gifts from a developer she used to date. (She has denied all charges.) On December 1, after six days of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on one count of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary. On January 9, Dixon resigned from office as part of a plea deal that will bring the entire case to a close. "I love the city. I love the people of the city," she told reporters. "Now it’s time to move on." (Dixon will contribute $45,000 to charity and will plead guilty to some counts of an outstanding perjury indictment in exchange for four years of unsupervised probation and retention of her $84,000-a-year pension.) She will leave office in early February.
A divorced mother of two and holder of a black belt in karate, Dixon enjoys weekly predawn bike rides through the city. She began her political life in the City Council, where she was a controversial and combative figure who once took off her shoe and wagged it angrily at colleagues during a redistricting debate. Some Baltimoreans think Dixon provided the inspiration for the fictional conniving politician Nerese Campbell on The Wire.
In the course of several conversations over the months leading up to the trial, Dixon shared reflections on her past and present with reporter Stephanie Shapiro.
On the notorious “shoe” incident
In 1991, during an acrimonious redistricting fight—Baltimore had become an overwhelmingly black city, while the City Council remained overwhelmingly white—Dixon removed her shoe, thumped it on the table and reportedly taunted her foes: “You’ve been running things for the last 20 years. Now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it!” Dixon insists she was misquoted.
“People labeled me as racist, with the shoe. That’s never been my motive, but, you know, the media can do things . . . I’m sure I didn’t say the shoe was on the other foot . . . It got very racial. Words were flying that in our community are fighting words, and I was trying to help [someone who’d been insulted] . . . The meeting was vicious. I took the shoe and banged it on the table rather than hit a colleague."
On her personal growth since those difficult early years
“You learn something new about yourself and how you handle situations. I learned that I’m an impatient person, but I deal with my impatience differently [now]. I pace it and try not to project it in a negative way . . . I’ve matured."
On doing an annual assessment of her strengths and weaknesses
“My birthday is so close to the end of the year, I take time over the holiday and make a list of things, positive and negative, about myself and the decisions I’ve made and I ask myself, OK, how could you have handled this differently? Last December’s [assessment concluded] pray more, read more Scripture, and not worry so much about what other people think or feel about me.”
For 23 years Stephanie Shapiro covered city life, popular culture, travel, food and the arts for the Baltimore Sun. She continues to write from Baltimore.