If you are the type of voter who thinks a personalized political spoils system overseen by a person with criminal history is a—or the—primary scandal of Baltimore governance, then Sheila Dixon can never be your candidate. That Dixon personally advocated for UTech, the African-American female electrical contractor that employed her sister but turned out to be a corporate husk with a mail drop, and that Dixon says today, of her conviction for taking gift cards supplied by city contractors, "if I had reported a gift I would still be mayor," tells you all you need to know about her and her candidacy.
But if you are a voter who is able to overlook these matters—or who believes they may redound to your benefit—then a Dixon II mayorship sounds like something better than merely the least-worst option.
Dixon knows how city government actually works—not how reformers would like it to work; how things actually get done. She has called for a minimum city employee wage of $15 and says she'll instill much better espirit de corps in city employees.
"I'm gonna change the culture in this city," Dixon promises, pledging to get employees to work harder. "Transportation, DPW, that's not an 8:30 to 4 job. That's 24/7."
Dixon proposes better use of technology in the fight against crime. She touts a phone-based app she says allows Anne Arundel cops to know where the bad guys are in real time. She thinks layering that data on top of the already-proven CitiStat system will bring crime down fast.
Dixon also promises more services and better odds for people getting out of prison, and she promises a stronger focus on neighborhood development. "We've got to stop using the salt shaker approach to doing revitalization in our community," Dixon says, criticizing the one-house-here, six-over-there progress of Vacants to Value—Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's much-touted anti-blight program—and other city initiatives.
Dixon says she would create a land bank for surplus city property to streamline and integrate planning and sales to developers. She actually tried that when she was mayor, but was not able to get then-City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake or Comptroller Joan Pratt to go along. Both women criticized the plan as bureaucratic and opaque, since it would create a private non-profit to handle land sales—which the government itself now does. Pratt was going to lose some power but Dixon says she was going to make that right by giving her more budget for audits, which sounds like a sly joke given the Comptroller's history with this issue.
She delivers this line deadpan.
In 2012, after Councilman Carl Stokes proposed a regular audit schedule for all city agencies, city voters learned that it was impossible: city agencies—many of which had not been audited in several decades—do not keep financial records that could be audited. Pratt has sole authority to decide when to audit city agencies, and said she couldn't do it because, at 39 accountants, her staff was far too small to do what Stokes proposed. Baltimore City's Comptroller's Office is larger than most cities, however—and most cities audit their agencies at least semi-annually.
City voters passed a charter amendment requiring the 13 largest city agencies each be audited at least once every four years. So far, only one agency—Transportation—has been audited. And it was ugly.
Dixon says there isn't much malfeasance within the city's government bureaucracy. "I don't think it's corrupt. I think the city government is lazy," she says. "They get into a rut….I'd give it a 4 [out of 10]."
After leaving public office in 2010 Dixon took a job with the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, putting her in the employ of Pless Jones, a long-time demolition contractor who serves as the organization's president. Jones is the ex-husband of Lisa Harris Jones, an A-List lobbyist and one of SRB's closest friends.
A month before Freddie Gray was arrested, changing the course of Baltimore, Pless Jones yelled at members of the city's Board of Estimates, which approves pretty much all contracts. Jones wanted a minority contractor to get a big piece of the city's water meter installation contract. The contractor's bid had been thrown out because it was non-responsive—it had changes in it that had not been initialed, meaning it could have been altered without the consent of all parties.
The Baltimore Brew reported the conflict, presciently asking if Dixon weren't "waiting in the wings" to run against Rawlings-Blake.
A year later, Dixon is the front-runner and, in the wake of riots, Governor Larry Hogan has fortuitously pledged $94 million for demolition in the city. Pless Jones, whose P&J Contracting has for decades been a key player in the city's demolition game, appears poised to collect a substantial share of those spoils.
Asked about the problem of "pass-through" minority businesses which have no employees and are created to reap minority set-aside contracts, Dixon turns stern.
"Usually it's the prime [contractor]," she says, meaning the main contractor who, in turn, hires the minority companies as subcontractors in order to fulfill the set-aside law. "Some primes I worked with are praying I don't get elected."
Dixon declines to name these violators, for now. But when she returns to the mayor's office, Dixon says, "I am going to make clear what my expectations are."