Ask many Baltimore locals what they think of ex-mayor, Sheila Dixon, and most will have very strong opinions. Dixon, while mayor of Baltimore, was indicted for twelve misdemeanor felony and misdemeanor charges for perjury, theft. She was accused of stealing around $3,400 of gift cards meant for needy families.
Dixon was later found guilty on one misdemeanor count of fraudulent misappropriation. She got probation to resign as a mayor as part of a plea agreement, but since she finished her probation, she is back in politics and going strong.
“Ms. Dixon was accused of using the cards to buy herself items at Target, Toys “R” Us, Old Navy and Best Buy including, according to court documents, a PlayStation 2, a digital camcorder, DVDs and CDs,” wrote Ian Urbina in the New York Times.
One of my friends calls Sheila Dixon “Steala Dixon,” but other opinions I’ve heard about Sheila Dixon are still positive despite her corruption scandal. I’ve seen many of her campaign workers putting signs for Dixon close to schools in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t a small number of workers either — there were easily 50 people near an elementary school on a hot spring day. I have friends who simply felt safer and liked the city better under Sheila Dixon, who was the mayor of Baltimore between 2007–2010.
In fact, Sheila Dixon is seen as such an effective mayor and effective campaigner that she has almost won the Democratic primary for mayor, twice, after her scandal. In 2016, Dixon was narrowly defeated by Catherine Pugh, herself tarnished by a corruption scandal last year. Pugh is now in federal prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payment for her children's book. Last year, in 2020, Dixon came a close second to Brandon Scott in the Democratic primary and was leading by a strong margin in the race until all the mail-in ballots were collected.
In Baltimore, the general election is merely a formality. The Democratic primary is where the race is won.
After being found guilty of a theft charge, according to WBAL, Dixon entered a plea deal where resign from office and not run for office again for the duration of her deal. In 2012, she completed all the terms of her probation, which included 500 hours of community service and paying $45,000 to charity.
“I want it behind me. You can fall from grace from people, but you don’t fall from grace with God,” Sheila Dixon said.
To be clear, I like Sheila Dixon. I respect her relentlessness and refusal to give up. And clearly, many people believe she did more good than harm to Baltimore in the time she was mayor. I voted for Brandon Scott in the 2020 Democratic primary, but it would be a mistake to count out Sheila Dixon in future elections. In light of the fact that Catherine Pugh stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sheila Dixon stealing a couple thousand dollars in gift cards seems relatively minor in 2021, although it shouldn’t. Joan Jacobson, author of Eyes of Justice — a Career Crime Fighter Battles Corruption…and Blindness, calls Dixon’s corruption “simple” compared to Pugh’s “real corruption.”
This is the story of Sheila Dixon’s time as Baltimore’s mayor, her corruption scandal for stealing gift cards from needy families and children, and the second act of her political career.
Dixon’s time as mayor
According to Joanna Sullivan at the Baltimore Business Journal, Sheila Dixon has grown up her whole life in Baltimore. She was raised in the Ashburton neighborhood, with a father who was a car salesman and a mother who was an activist in the community. She graduated from a Baltimore City Public Schools high school called Northwestern High School. I know many people who have worked in some capacity at Northwestern High School — it is now closed.
But I digress. She would attend Towson University for her Bachelor’s in early childhood education and Johns Hopkins University for her Master’s in educational management. Sheila Dixon has a very, very decorated resume. She worked as an elementary school teacher and an educator for the Head Start program for many years before going into politics.
Dixon was elected to the Baltimore City State Central Committee in 1986, and then proceeded to be elected to the Baltimore City Council as the council representative of District 4, where she would represent West Baltimore. While on the City Council, Dixon won re-election in 1987 and 1991, becoming the chairperson of the Taxation and Finance Committee.
While in the City Council, Dixon established a steady presence and reputation. However, she would come under criticism for divisive rhetoric and ethical concerns. In one instance, Dixon employed her sister, Janice, on her payroll and did not report it, despite being required to by law.
She was also popular for one incident in 1991. She was a young member of the City Council, and she waved a shoe at her white colleagues on the City Council and said:
“You’ve been running things for the last 20 years. Now, the shoe is on the other foot.”
In 1999, Sheila Dixon was elected as president of the Baltimore City Council. She was the first Black woman to be elected as City Council President, and she would win re-election in 2003. In 2006, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley would pursue a gubernatorial election in Maryland and win, and Dixon became mayor of Baltimore after O’Malley resigned to become the governor. She would win re-election as mayor in 2007 in a landslide.
Dixon’s most impressive and memorable accomplishment as mayor was reducing the notorious homicide rate in Baltimore. She appointed a new police commissioner and homicides went gone down significantly in 2008 as she prioritized a new, community-policing-centered policy, a break from her predecessor’s zero-tolerance priorities.
Dixon put violent crime as one of the toughest issues facing the city, as she was “disturbed that we’ve come to the point where life is taken so easily. If I can make a difference in one young person’s life to turn around, I think that would be significant.” The Baltimore Sun said Dixon was seen as a charismatic and energetic mayor who was popular among many residents.
“She can’t help but engage. She had a lot of emotion that she would just wear on her sleeve. It’s not like she’s going to consult with her press people and she’s going to come up with the best way to respond. There was something very refreshing about that,” one admirer in the media said.
The gift card scandal
Despite some of her accomplishments in office, Sheila Dixon’s personal and ethical affairs would bring her down. According to Jacobson in the Baltimore Brew, investigators had a search and seizure warrant to raid her home. In her home, they found “a burnt umber mink jacket and a coat of Persian lamb and mink,” Jimmy Choo sandals, Giorgio Armani shoes, an Italian leather coat, an Xbox, PlayStation controller, and Nintendo games. All were bought with gift cards intended for needy children.
An affidavit released by the Baltimore Sun found that investigators were conducting an investigation into “bribery, perjury and misconduct in office.” One person frequently mentioned in the affidavit is Robert Lipscomb, a developer in the city who colluded with Dixon to give her lavish gifts. The two would frequently go on very expensive shopping trips to other cities, and Dixon would always vote in favor of big tax breaks and zoning changes for development projects for Lipscomb’s company. Lipscomb and Dixon would not only have a professional relationship, but a personal one — Jacobson notes the two dated.
While Dixon was being accused, Barack Obama visited Baltimore just before his inauguration. He complimented the mayors of Philadelphia and Washington, but snubbed Sheila Dixon and didn’t mention her. He then invited over 70 mayors to the White House the next month, and originally invited Dixon. However, hours later, Dixon was taken off the list.
In total, Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz say that Dixon received a total of $15,348 in gifts from Lipscomb when she was City Council president. Also, when Dixon was mayor, prosecutors said she used as much as $3,400 to buy Best Buy items for herself and her staff. Lipscomb and a City Councilwoman named Helen Holton were charged with $12,500 bribery schemes as the state investigated corruption in Baltimore City. Dixon and her attorney spoke out in her defense:
“I am being unfairly accused. Time will prove that I have done nothing wrong, and I am confident that I will be found innocent of these charges.”
Dixon and Lipscomb both acknowledged they had a personal relationship with each other, but said their relationship did not lead to any professional gain. However, she also never reported any gifts from Lipscomb at his company, Doracon Contracting. In the city, Doracon Contracting was involved with several lucrative high profile-revitalization projects near the harbor and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Before the gift card scandal, multiple contractors tied with Dixon got into trouble. Mildred Boyer, president of the technology company Utech, was convicted of filing false tax returns. Boyer apparently used fake invoices to get paid and didn’t have an office to work when she was at Utech. Boyer would plead guilty and cooperate with the state prosecutor’s office.
Her former campaign chairman, Dale Clark, received $600,000 for developing a computer system for the City Council, working without a contract and often billing the city at increments below $5,000 so they didn’t require approval. In 2007, Clark pleaded guilty to three counts of failure to file tax returns. He also cooperated with the state prosecutor’s office.
Some of the most damning evidence involved the gift cards. Developers like Lipscomb gave gift cards to Dixon, who was then trusted with giving them to poor families. Dixon spent many of them on herself, and was very sloppy with doing so — she used her Best Buy rewards number while interacting with a cashier. She also used her personal credit card in conjunction with Target gift cards.
Dixon pressed on as mayor despite all the allegations. The trial would be postponed to November 9, 2009, with Dixon facing charges of four counts of perjury, three counts of theft, three counts of fraudulent misappropriation, one count of misconduct in office, and two counts of misconduct in office.
However, Dixon would largely leave unscathed in the trial once Lipscomb did not testify. The prosecution thought the defense would attack Lipscomb’s credibility. Before the trial started, four charges were dropped due to Lipscomb not testifying.
Dixon was only convicted on one charge of misdemeanor embezzlement for taking $500, but was acquitted for the more serious felony theft charges. After her conviction, Dixon continued working as mayor since she hadn’t been sentenced yet.
In January 2010, Robert Lang at WBAL reported that Dixon entered a plea deal with prosecutors. She would resign from office, but keep her pension of $83,000. She also agreed to sell the gifts she received from developers and not seek public office during probation.
A second act
After finishing her probation, some saw Sheila Dixon as disgraced. And while that might be true, I admire that she also never gave up. To say she almost won twice for mayor after her scandal is an understatement because Dixon came very close, and was the frontrunner for both races.
According to Amy Mulvihill at Baltimore Magazine, Dixon has always been a relentless campaigner. For most of the early 2016 mayoral campaign, Dixon was leading the polls. In campaign events, she frequently talked about Baltimore's capacity for second chances and how she was an example of that capacity.
The critics of Dixon lodged the expected attacks: thief, crook, liar, and disgrace. But Dixon tried to run a campaign where the good she did for the city outweighed the bad, although many remained righteously unconvinced.
Regardless of what people thought of Dixon, whether she was sorry enough, whether the good outweighed the bad, whether she deserved a second chance, Dixon was a legitimate frontrunner. That, however, all changed when the late Elijah Cummings endorsed rival Catherine Pugh. The endorsement would lift Pugh’s poll numbers over Dixon.
Pugh would defeat Dixon, but very narrowly. According to Luke Broadwater and Yvonne Wenger in the Baltimore Sun, the city was still recovering from the Freddie Gray uprising the year prior, and Pugh raised her profile during the unrest, trying to calm much of the tension between police and protestors. Pugh earned 37% of the vote in the Democratic primary, while Dixon earned 34%. Only about 3,000 votes separated the two.
In 2020, Dixon again led most polls going into the Democratic primary. However, with more years behind her scandal, Dixon seemed to have a much better chance in a crowded field. But the COVID-19 pandemic would not play to her strengths in “retail politics,” according to Luke Broadwater in the Baltimore Sun. Dixon excels at campaigning at local events and directly interacting with supporters, which is a large reason for her support throughout her career.
After the pandemic upended the race, opponents stopped treating her as a front-runner. According to Broadwater, the race turned from knocking on doors and rallies to video ads. Many didn’t even bother to attack her corruption in the debates — they simply ignored her.
“Whole debates go by without anyone bringing up a corruption case that drove her from office,” Broadwater says.
It appeared, in those debates, that the only thing worse than being disgraced is being irrelevant. Dixon’s strength in getting grassroots support and her base to turn out did not stop. A professor at the University of Baltimore said Dixon’s strengths were getting “historically lower-socioeconomic black communities” to turn out, and the pandemic wouldn’t change that reality. However, she couldn’t hold rallies to turn out the faith base community. She lamented that a mail-in election was going to be detrimental to the Black community.
Despite the pandemic, her campaign adapted, using SUVs to pump her voice through neighborhoods and moving digitally to using Facebook Live.
The election was very, very close again. I remember Dixon being in the lead on election day, but Brandon Scott, who I voted for by mail, would close the lead as mail-in ballots were counted the following few days. At the end of the day, Scott won by about 3,000 votes, almost the same amount Pugh defeated Dixon by.
In both elections, Dixon promptly conceded. With Maryland’s first attempt at mail-in voting, Dixon could have asked for a recount during COVID-19, but she did not — she congratulated Scott and called for unity.
I don’t think it matters whether you or I believe Sheila Dixon deserves a second chance. The fact is that many voters are still loyal to her and believe she does deserve another shot.
Part of the Dixon scandal and the subsequent Catherine Pugh scandal leads me to believe it’s nearly impossible to be the mayor of Baltimore and be untarnished. Broadwater calls the political system in Baltimore, and also much of America, a “pay to play” system where the only way to get to high office is to raise lots of money from private donors.
“You have to have almost superhuman ethical standards to not get into this quid pro quo game,” he says in a Slate podcast.
Sheila Dixon got many second chances. And the biggest factor behind why she got a second chance and her scandal was barely mentioned in the 2020 Democratic primary is simple — time. In Baltimore, Dixon’s gift card scandal seems like an irrelevant relic of another time when the city is already facing significant problems, including over 300 homicides per year since 2015. People have short memories, even when it comes to corruption.
It’s not that no one cares about the corruption scandal, but in the grander scheme of things, I can see how many believe the good Sheila Dixon did for the city outweighs the bad. Although most people don’t approve of her actions in the scandal and how she benefitted from personal gain, it’s very tough to come back from a corruption scandal as well as Dixon has. Most people would have just thrown in the towel. Sheila Dixon did not — to some degree, you have to respect her for her relentlessness, and not count her out for the next mayoral election.
Photo of Sheila Dixon — From Marylandstater on Public Domain
Originally published at CrimeBeat on February 6, 2021.