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.
It’s funny how much of politics—notwithstanding the famous bare-knuckle and hard-ball reputation—is dependent on good manners. Disgraced politicians “take responsibility for their actions” not because they’ve seen the error of their ways but because it would be a breach of political protocol to continue arguing one’s innocence. Indicted and convicted politicians often resign from office, not because they have to, but because it’s expected. When politicians don’t follow the rule book, there’s shock and anger, and then surprisingly acquiescence. It turns out that most political leaders and parties don’t have the stomach to actually take on a politician who ignores the mores and code of the group.
Never was this more on display than on Jan. 15, 2009, when Roland Burris took office as a U.S. senator, after shredding the political rule book in Chicago. When former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the ultimate political rude boy, had been caught on a government wiretap sounding as though he were offering the Illinois Senate seat vacated by Obama to the highest bidder, it was understood that it would be only a matter of days before Blagojevich resigned. But Blagojevich wouldn’t go. Worse, he was determined to actually appoint someone to fill the Senate seat. And he did. At a painfully awkward and defiant press conference announcing his appointment,the 70-year-old Roland Burris, a former state attorney general of mediocre accomplishments, enumerated in detail on his prematurely and self-designed mausoleum, declared himself “the junior senator from Illinois.” Worse, Burris stood smiling proudly as state representative Bobby Rush invoked the lynching trope to push back Burris’ detractors. This press conference of bold political transgressors mocking protocol, party discipline and just good, old, political manners was at once exhilarating and embarrassing. Questions abounded about whether Sens. Durbin and Reid would seat Burris, but when Burris recreated the famous schoolhouse door segregation scene at the Senate a week later, the leaders folded, and he was seated.
Burris is something of a pariah in Democratic Party circles, and his early plans to raise money and run for the Senate seat in 2010 have been aborted for lack of funds (although he managed to make a name for himself in the health care debate, threatening to refuse to support the health care reform bill even though he knew that Democrats needed every vote to ensure passage of the bill). This perhaps is the only recourse left to punish the rude and unmannerly in politics: to shun them. Rod Blagojevich is out of politics forever. He’s an author, sometime radio personality and reality show wannabe. Sarah Palin—another transgressor of political protocol who, in a kind of reverse Sheila Dixon, bizarrely resigned from office before her term as governor was up—has been shunned by many of the standard bearers of her party. And while she is now a best-selling author and powerful political personality, she is unlikely to see a return to high elected office in the GOP.
Lieberman (still a Democrat) has become something of a beloved Republican pet, but his place as vice presidential candidate on the 2000 ticket with Al Gore probably marks the apex of his career. By contrast, a politician like Dixon, who was convicted of a misdemeanor totaling $530, and who is still widely regarded as an effective and hard-working mayor for the troubled city of Baltimore, might have had a strong political future in Baltimore. (One stumbling block is her March trial on charges stemming from her alleged failure to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts by her developer boyfriend when she was city council president.) But the mayor’s current intransigence and her breach of political protocol may ultimately doom her chances of returning to political life in the city she knows so well. “Going rogue” may have yielded a financial bonanza for Sarah Palin, but for those who hope for a future in politics, it’s still best to sit up straight, eat your vegetables and take responsibility for your actions.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.