WYPR Mayoral Interviews: Shelia Dixon
Sheila Dixon is a former Baltimore City council member and city council president. She became mayor in January 2007 when then-mayor Martin O’Malley was inaugurated as Maryland’s governor. She served the remainder of his term and was elected in her own right in November 2007. In 2010 she was convicted of embezzlement in a scandal over gift cards meant for the needy and resigned.
Four years ago Dixon ran again in the Democratic mayoral primary, losing by a few thousand votes to Catherine Pugh. Now Dixon is running for mayor for the third time.
A May poll commissioned by WYPR, The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore showed Dixon in a statistical three-way tie with City Council President Brandon Scott and Mary Miller.
Speaking with On the Record host Sheilah Kast in April, Dixon said she’s well-suited to lead the city during the COVID-19 crisis, pointing to her experience serving as mayor during The Great Recession of 2008-2009.
“No candidate who is running for mayor or who currently is mayor has ever dealt with a recession before. I know that my experience will allow us to get through this in a creative way where we can make people whole in the process.”
Excerpts from the interview
What is your plan for economic recovery?
I served [from] 2007 to 2010 during a recession where we had very little finance, taxes, etcetera, and I did probably more than what has happened in the last 10 years because we were able to reduce crime, we were able to provide quality service to our citizens. We were able to do a lot with very little. So now we’re going to be faced with a bigger recession, I think probably the largest that we’ve ever experienced most of us in our lives. So who can go in there and look at duplication within city government services and consolidate?
You’re going to need the kind of leader that has the confidence that can go and look at the waste and audit our agencies, look at duplications, and then we have to be able to work with our partners because when people come out of this, they’re going to be looking for job opportunities.
I want to create a separate unit within the Health Department to deal with infectious diseases and come up with a strategy and plan long term so that whatever happens, and this could happen again, or whatever disease could happen, that we have a plan in place to assist us in this process and so that we don’t miss the homeless population, the vulnerable population. [Also] connecting resources and services to our schools and daycares, as well as making sure that our first responders, our fire and police are taken care of first and foremost through this process.
Last but not least, we gotta look at getting creative, the same we are creative with using TIFs and PILOTs, (methods to encourage business development by easing tax burdens) we’re going to have to be even more creative with figuring out ways to work with our state and federal partners to provide grants and low interest loans for businesses to get back up and operating through this process.
During your time as mayor, homicides in Baltimore dropped by more than 12%. How did this happen?
I was there during zero tolerance. And I realized that between zero tolerance, between losing our police force and between the number of illegal guns in our community, the drug trade and then the disparity within neighborhoods, that we had to take a holistic approach. And so we focus on the most violent offenders. We created the gun registry modeled after New York, where we had people who were caught with illegal guns, register those guns. But we also visit those individuals and if they weren't doing anything and they were on parole and probation, we help them with a plan of action. What is it going to take for you to get out of this culture? Is it a job? Is it training? Is it education? So we would bring resources to those individuals.
Third, we created Safe Streets which allowed people who were part of that culture but wanted out, to be that mediator. Because a lot of times they could squash incidents that were going on before the police could even show up.
Last but not least, our officers. Yes, we know officers have to gain trust back from the citizens. But we also have to allow officers to do their job and we have to let them understand that we need them in those neighborhoods and communities being visible. And then we had an aggressive recruitment program where we not only retained officers, but we were able to attract new officers.
How are you going to work to recruit officers?
We had an academy for fire and police. It was a high school program where we exposed them to the opportunities and the careers in public safety and how an individual can gain so much wealth and information to be a public servant. I would institute the academy back at the high school level.
Secondly, a big piece that we have to deal with day one is we have to deal with this lawsuit as it relates to the pension for the fire and police. This has been an ongoing battle for 10 years. This is unacceptable. Me as mayor and my team, along with the FOP and others, have to sit at the table and get this resolved. One of the challenges and frustrations and concerns that most officers have who are out there on the streets, or don’t want to become a Baltimore City police, is the pension. That's going to help us to recruit officers, that's going to help us to retain officers.
Being short of officers contributes to a tremendous overtime bill. How will you get the Baltimore Police Department's budget under control?
If you look back at my tenure as mayor, I was able to reduce the police department's budget and overtime. It was a significant amount to reduce. One, you have to track it. Two, you have to be able to work with our partners where we are short, for example, right now because of the crime and violence that [is] happening, we have to have a proactive policy.
We have to work with and enhance our police presence. Maryland State Police could be an asset for us to be present within the communities, particularly in those areas where we have our highways and [Interstate] 83 where we can relieve our officers from the Northwest District or the Northern District who tend to deal with incidents and accidents that happen.
Our school police could be present around communities and in neighborhoods, particularly in the areas where our schools are, patrolling the area. Our MTA police could provide some support where we have our bus lines, subway lines and light rail line.
Part of the deterrent is having effective multiple vision forces out in the communities. Part of why New York was able to reduce the crime is because they were able to have the presence of their officers walking those beats, getting out into those neighborhoods. Even through the coronavirus, New York’s crime has gone down drastically, and where is our crime right now? It's embarrassing that we’re still having the kind of incidents between the guns and the murders during this pandemic.
Considering the circumstances of your resignation, how will you work to restore public trust?
I know that I have to gain the citizens' trust back. I also know that through this process and through my life when mistakes happen that I'm going to be as transparent as I can. So I know I’m going to work three times harder than anyone else so that I can gain back the trust.
Redemption, second chances, it is part of anybody's life. Just through this election process with providing tax returns and other information in my disclosure, I tried to provide even more information than I needed to. But I'm going to continue to build on those beliefs as well as values and I’m going to continue to be transparent and honest and straightforward to the citizens of Baltimore. I'm not going to hide behind an issue that the city might be engaged or involved in. I’m going to let the public know the facts and the truth.
Why is mayor the job you feel called to pursue rather than another role in the community?
I've been working in the community for a very long time as an educator, as a mentor, as a consultant working with businesses, as a co-chair of a nonprofit entity.
When you see things falling apart and you know what it takes to get it back in a way that can move the city in the right direction and can work with a team of people that are committed to the citizens of this city--that's why I decided to get back into this.
It was first talking to my God and secondly, it was the passion and drive because I want to work with young people who want to understand how city government really works and operates. It's not about the politics. It's about teaching individuals that you build on systems that are working, you don't throw it away because it was somebody's idea. And that's one of the challenges that we face here in this city, everything becomes so political versus doing it for the right reason.
This transcript was condensed for the web. Listen to the entire interview below.
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