Looking Back on the Rude Politicos of 2009

From Rod Blagojevich to Mark Sanford to Sheila Dixon, breaking the rules of good behavior was common last year, but only Sarah Palin seemed to get the big payoff.



Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has agreed to a plea deal that will keep her out of prison and allow her to keep her pension. In the so-called Alford Plea, Dixon acknowledges that prosecutors had enough evidence to find her guilty of charges related to failing to disclose gifts from a developer doing business with the city.

Under an agreement between defense attorneys and prosecutors and agreed to by Judge Dennis Sweeney, Dixon will be sentenced to four years of unsupervised probation, and will have to perform 500 hours of community service. Dixon must also contribute $45,000 to charity.

The deal allows Dixon to keep her $83,000 yearly pension amassed during a long career in public service, and prosecutors agreed not to seek further criminal charges against the mayor. A jury found Dixon guilty last month on a charge of stealing gift cards intended for needy families.

She faced an upcoming trial in March on the charges that she failed to report the receipt of expensive gifts from developers on financial disclosure forms.

The surprise announcement last month by Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith that he had decided to switch from being a Democrat to a Republican was a reminder that 2009 was a year marked by politicians who refused to play by the rules.

It’s hard to believe that it was only a year ago that Roland Burris burst onto the national scene, dispelling our visions of a new racial politics with an old-school, race-based power grab. By accepting the senatorial nomination from disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Burris annoyed Senate majority leader Harry Reid,; Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois; and perhaps even President Barack Obama, whose ascendance to the presidency had left the Senate seat vacant.

But then, 2009 was chock-full of politicians—both Democratic and Republican—who broke the rules of political conduct. There was Sarah Palin’s early exit from office and publication of a tell-all book, and Sen. Joe Lieberman’s bait-and-switch during the health care reform debate, a dance that left Harry Reid looking like a parent who had threatened punishment once too often. Even the disgraced, lovelorn and soon-to-be divorced governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, remains in office despite having become the target of unrelenting local and national disdain for his deception and use of state funds to conduct a love affair with a woman in Argentina. In Baltimore, Mayor Sheila Dixon channeled Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, refusing to step down from office after being convicted of embezzlement last month. Found guilty of using a little over $500 in gift cards donated by developers for poor and needy children, Dixon asked for a new trial to avoid a sentence that could range from probation to up to five years in jail. All of these transgressors of the political code revealed an important political reality—there are few consequences for politicians who refuse to adhere to the code of political good manners. In fact, pushing the envelope—taking office against the wishes of party leaders, or refusing to step down, may even pay off for otherwise disgraced politicians.

Take Mayor Dixon. Maryland law provides that elected officials convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude”—that is, crimes like embezzlement involving elements of fraud—must be suspended from office if the conviction stems from acts that form part of the official’s “public duties and responsibilities.” This has been widely interpreted to mean that Dixon would lose her job if convicted of any of the theft and embezzlement charges. But in the days following her conviction, word began to leak out that Dixon was not planning to leave office. City Council President Stephanie Rawlings, who by law would succeed Dixon in office, could, according to a Baltimore Sun headline, “only wait for [the] other shoe to drop.” Then the mayor came before the cameras to issue a statement. She didn’t offer the standard apology many expected. She didn’t “take responsibility for her actions”—a standard politician’s way of admitting guilt without an admission. Instead, Dixon vowed to “continue doing the people’s business without interruption” while she “reviewed her options.” Days later, swathed in a crimson shawl and hat, Dixon sat atop a red Corvette and was driven through the streets of Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood for the annual Mayor’s Christmas parade. Talk about audacity.

Although Baltimore leaders and residents first shook their heads in disbelief at the mayor’s moxie, by week’s end a strange shift had taken place. Calls for Dixon to step down, which were forcefully and passionately advanced after her conviction, abated. Not because many don’t still believe that Dixon should step down, but simply because she won’t. And no one is willing to take on the messy, divisive and potentially unsuccessful task of trying to force her out.