Eleven years ago, I wasn’t paying much attention to city politics. I had a vague aspiration to learn more about it, and would dutifully consume an article now and then on the topic, but it was a bit much to follow. So many names and titles, so much history, so many complex issues to unpack.
One thing I did know was that Mayor Sheila Dixon was popular with local environmental types for doing things like rolling out the Charm City Circulator and increasing recycling pickup days. She even took regular morning bike rides! I’d been invited by a friend in Recreation & Parks and thought the idea was really cool, but the rides tended to start a little early in the morning for my taste. I figured I’d make it out eventually, and there was every indication I’d have plenty of time; Dixon wasn’t going anywhere.
Then, in June 2008, the news came down that Dixon’s home had been raided by the state (I had to double-check as I was writing this, because at first I was pretty sure it was the FBI that did the raid, which didn’t seem to make sense, but no, I was thinking of Catherine Pugh’s case… UGH). What happened? Something about a secret developer boyfriend and stolen gift cards meant for poor kids. Yikes.
Dixon took a plea — even though she was found guilty on one of the dozen charges against her, she was able to avoid the conviction and simply resign, perform some community service, and pay a fine (which she actually didn’t finish paying until a court found her in violation of probation and made her do it), and that was that. And so it was that her record was cleared and she was able to run again in 2016, by which time I was keeping a more careful eye on things.
It was unsettling as hell to watch that race unfold. For a while there, it really seemed like Dixon was going to get her old job back. I mean, didn’t this person steal from CHILDREN? In the end, Dixon lost to Pugh by just 2,446 votes, 1.9% of the total vote count. If she’d managed to peel off just 1/16 of the votes that went to the eleven candidates other than herself and Pugh, she would’ve been the victor. I didn’t get it at ALL.
On Saturday, Dixon announced that she will run yet again in 2020. While I don’t like it, I think I understand her continued support a little better now. She was the first woman to be Baltimore’s Mayor, she was passionate, people respected her and connected with her… and most of all, she was competent, a trait in desperately short supply in our top leadership. Crime actually went down during her tenure. Everyone who came after, Rawlings-Blake, Pugh, Young, none of them have felt like they really knew what they were doing. Under Dixon, the idea that Baltimore was on “the cusp of a renaissance” felt plausible, whereas when Jack Young delivered that line a couple of months ago, it felt like a sick joke.
Yet even as I can empathize with the perspective that maybe a competent crook could be the best choice — aren’t they all crooks, after all? — I cannot accept that we must tolerate corruption in order to have competence. And the more I’ve looked into Dixon’s deeds, the more it’s obvious that her abuses of power go way, way beyond gift cards.
Here’s what we know about (and I think it’s fair to guess, based on the length of this list, that there’s even more we don’t):
- At the time that Dixon won the City Council Presidency in 1999, she also held another job with the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development. The state’s ethics commission said that wasn’t OK, because many of Dixon’s clients at her state job, whose interests she was in charge of promoting, were the same people whose contracts she would be making decisions about at her city job. She ignored the ruling and kept both jobs for the next two and a half years.
- Upon becoming the Council President, Dixon gave her campaign manager Dale Clark a contract to handle the Council’s computer system. After the contract lapsed, she had him keep working for six years without a valid contract, submitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in payment requests in small amounts in order to avoid city procurement rules. Other qualified firms tried for the contract and were rejected without explanation. When another firm was finally accepted, they claimed that they were sabotaged by Clark.
- Eventually, when the whole thing was exposed, the work was moved over to the city’s IT office… which had had the capacity to do the job more cheaply the entire time (https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/bal-probe0312-story.html).
- Dixon employed her sister Janice in her office until the city ethics board said she had to let her go.
- Then, Janice got a job as Operations Manager with a technology company called UTech. Dixon actively pushed Comcast, which had a large contract with the city, to hire UTech, and steered other multi-million dollar contracts to companies in which UTech was involved even when their bids were coming in much higher than others for the same work… all while ignoring the city ethics rule saying that you must disclose anything that would benefit an immediate family member (https://www.nydailynews.com/bs-xpm-2006-02-21-0602210055-story.html).
- Years later, it turned out that UTech was, in fact, a sham company, with fake employees, forged documents, and all kinds of tax fraud going on. The owner only avoided serious jail time by agreeing to work with prosecutors to identify others who were complicit (https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2006-12-20-0612200229-story.html).
- Around this same time, Dixon started dating Ronald Lipscomb, founder of Doracon, a large development company. This was yet another relationship she should have disclosed on city ethics forms but didn’t. In her own words, she “twisted some arms” in order to allow Doracon to do a development in east Baltimore called Frankford Estates. Under her leadership, the Council authorized $6 million in tax relief and an $800,000 grant for the project, as well as giving away $237,000 in land and waiving $47,600 in building permit fees. Sorry for the pun, but talk about a sweetheart deal.
- The company hired to do all of the electrical work for Frankford Estates? UTech. The fake tech firm hired another company to actually do the work, and then failed to pay the real electricians what they were owed for the job. (https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2006-04-16-0604160215-story.html).
- Dixon also pushed through zoning changes (no easy feat) that made it possible to allow Doracon to do a fancy condo project called WaterView Overlook. All this time, while Lipscomb profited enormously, he lavished gifts upon her, like a $2,000 gift certificate which she used to buy a fur coat that would become an infamous symbol of her downfall.
- Then came what I personally find the most sickening detail of all. Dixon approved a $13.6 million tax break for Doracon’s Spinnaker Bay apartment project in Harbor East. That same night, she took a trip with Lipscomb to New York where he shelled out thousands of dollars for a stay in the Trump International Hotel and a shopping spree (https://baltimorebrew.com/2015/07/02/fur-coats-and-tax-breaks-dusting-off-the-details-of-the-sheila-dixon-story/).
- Then of course there are the gift cards. Much like with Pugh’s Healthy Holly scheme, though on a smaller scale, it would seem this was a way for Dixon to solicit free cash from the city’s wealthy. While some of the cards did go to charities, others were handed out to city employees and friends, and of course Dixon kept large amounts for herself.
It was a real job compiling this list, because each time I read about one scandal, I would find a reference to another and then have to dig that one up too. It is overwhelmingly clear that these were not “mistakes” as Dixon has termed them in her limp and late apologies to the city.
You don’t mistakenly ignore ethics rulings. You don’t mistakenly tell someone to break up their invoices to avoid review. You don’t mistakenly forget about people like your sister and your boyfriend when disclosing how your personal relationships and your job intersect. And in a detail that simultaneously represents the least and the most of what the problem with Dixon is all about, you definitely don’t mistakenly take a $15 Toys R’ Us card that could make all the difference for a poor family’s holiday and give it to a rich lobbyist friend (https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-xpm-2009-11-17-bal-md-ci-dixon17nov17-story.html).
Dixon was wrapped up in conflicts of interest (literally, in the case of the fur coat) throughout her time in office. She didn’t give a shit, refused to cop to any of it until she was found out, and continually gave away the store — excuse me, the city — to her buddies, her sibling, her boyfriend. Whether it was important contracts, land, or millions in taxes, it was up for grabs.
We can’t afford to be up for fucking grabs. We can’t afford Sheila fucking Dixon. I fully believe that we can choose a new leader who’s both competent AND honest. There are several running! More on them in future columns.
In the lead up to this column, I put out an ask for Dixon opinions. Here are a few:
“Someone referred to her as the zombie mayor. I think that sums it up. Zombie mayoral candidate. I liked her well enough at the time but it’s over, dead, but somehow she keeps staggering down the campaign trail. Let the dead rest.” — Jai Brooks
“She definitely had a better grasp of embezzling.” — J.B. (a different person than Jai)
“It’s a no from me. She should be a consultant or something. And I am a believer in second chances but she hasn’t shown (to me) that she’s deserving of that. Especially since she can’t own up to what she did and make up excuses to why she lost the last time to Pugh. So no, thank you. We do have better alternatives that are running.” — Tiffany J. Jones
“They don’t have an emoji of eyes rolling completely out of my skull sockets. That’s my opinion.” — A.B.
“I think we have much better choices (Mary Washington for one) this time around and there’s no reason to vote for someone with even a hint of scandal in their background. Enough.” — Mary Scholl
“So after the Freddy Grey protest I spent some time in Sandtown handing out food at a bunch of the awesome food drives they had. When I was at one we had Dixon show up. She shook hands, took some photos “handing out food” and then left. Not impressed at all. O’Malley did the same thing at a different food drive at a church.” — M. Wilkes
On an entirely different note, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society is looking for drums, rhythm & lead guitar, strings, and keyboards for the band for their super badass-looking spring show, Glitterus: Dragon Rising. Apply here by 12/22: http://www.baltimorerockopera.org/bandauditions
And to conclude: Keith Davis, Jr. is an innocent man languishing in Baltimore’s jail and he must be freed NOW!
Cultural Events of the Week: This Saturday night, 12/21, from 5pm to midnight, visit the TAROT BALL: Solstice Gala and Market at Rituals: Bar & Venue in Station North. In addition to readings and performances by the always-sublime Jake Bee and Rahne Alexander, there are some real gems among the long list of other guests, including Talbolt Johnson (check out this stunning piece he just shared here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umtEYL_F7_Y). As for literal gems, the fact that Stellarium Jewelry is on the vendor list is enough reason to attend by itself.
Green Events of the Week: Tonight, Monday 12/16 from 5:30-7:30pm, Our Revolution Baltimore City/ County will be holding a Local Green New Deal discussion at the Roland Park Branch Library. What would it look like if we banded together to turn the challenge of needing new, clean energy infrastructure post-haste into a solution for the no less urgent problem of jobs for the masses?
Then, at noon on Saturday 12/21 at the Inner Harbor’s Christmas Village, join Extinction Rebellion Baltimore for “No Christmas On A Dead Planet”, an apocalyptic holiday street celebration. Featuring climate crisis holiday carols, justice inspired ornaments, and more, this is your chance to join a bunch of raucous artists and activists to combine nihilism with wholesome holiday fun!