Sheila Dixon – First Female Mayor, Baltimore, MD

Sheila Dixon

First Lady: Six months into the job, Baltimore’s first woman mayor talks about the challenges ahead – and the craziest thing she’s ever done as a politician.

By Rashida Powell

Sheila Dixon is still a relative newcomer to the mayor’s office, but with re-election on the line in September, she’s already fighting for her political life. After Dixon became the first female mayor of Baltimore in January, when her predecessor was sworn in as governor of Maryland, one newspaper characterized her initial performance as low-key but productive. She got points for funding extra trash recycling and reducing police overtime, but was criticized for not significantly addressing the bigger problems, such as crime. The murder of six people during one weekend in late April changed that. Dixon has since unveiled a crime-fighting strategy that includes cracking down on illegal guns, improving relations between the community and police, and targeting the most dangerous criminals.

A former teacher who’s no stranger to politics, Dixon spent a dozen years on the Baltimore City Council and in 1999 became the first African-American woman ever elected Council president. She talks with PINK about making history and taking on her critics.

PINK: You’re a political pioneer. Is that something you thought about before you became the first female mayor of Baltimore?
Sheila Dixon: No, that fact was not on my mind. What I thought about was the diverse city of Baltimore and how I could help it. It hit me the day I was sworn in. There was overwhelming energy all around me, and the turnout, both men and women, was amazing. At times when I’m heading to meetings or conducting other business, people – especially women – offer me words of encouragement as I pass them by.

PINK: What do you think will be your biggest challenge in the 2007 mayoral election?
S.D.: Showing the public I can tackle the growing homicide rates and increased crime in Baltimore. I’m already doing that with my new initiatives.

PINK: What do you say to your critics who ask why you waited so long to tackle crime?
S.D.: People like to criticize just to criticize. You have to plan these things and get cooperation from all the various departments – like the police department, the state department and the prosecutor’s department – before you roll out a new strategy.

PINK: What has been your greatest test as mayor so far?
S.D.: One was the death of Rachael Wilson, a fire cadet with the Baltimore Fire Department, who collapsed from smoke inhalation during a fire-extinguishing training exercise. I had to make quick decisions about how to react and what to say to the family members. I expressed to them how angry and shocked I was about the unacceptable mistakes that were made during the fire drill.

PINK: When did you decide to move from teaching to politics?
S.D.: As a teacher in the Baltimore school system, there were many policies that I wanted to help change and implement, like the teacher-student ratio and the funding formula. When you have young people who are more academically advanced than some of their classmates, they are not being challenged. I remember having a kindergarten student who was reading on a second-grade level, and I would sneak him into the advanced classes so he wouldn’t get bored.

PINK: What do you want people to remember about you?
S.D.: That I took a holistic approach to change people’s lives, and that I was able to help break the cycle of drug addiction and poverty. Hopefully, 100 years from now this city will not have to worry about these ailments.

PINK: What is your biggest fear?
S.D.: I don’t have any fears as mayor. All I can do is my best. I just hope that I never make a mistake that has a major impact on someone’s life.

PINK: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done during your political career?
S.D.: In 1991 as a City Council member, I took off my shoe during a debate and waved it at a colleague after he made racially insensitive comments. I banged the shoe on a nearby table to stop myself from throwing it at him, and the media interpreted the whole scene as me saying “the shoe is on the other foot now.” That was definitely the craziest thing I’ve done.

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