Sheila Dixon and the Machine

My column in today’s Baltimore Examiner:

No matter the outcome of the allegations of theft and perjury involving developer Ronald Lipscomb, Mayor Sheila Dixon’s legal problems are merely a symptom of the larger problem in Baltimore: machine politics. Democrats have controlled Baltimore for nearly 50 years with unchecked power. As Lord Acton’s dictum states “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The allegations involving Dixon and Lipscomb highlight the symbiotic relationship between city developers and machine politicians. In a nutshell, developers, through campaign finance loopholes, funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to city politicians. The politicians in turn put that money into their machines to turn out the vote. In return for their donations, developers expect huge tax breaks and public largesse for their projects. While this dance may not be illegal, it definitely appears unseemly.

Baltimore-based researchers Stephen Walters and Louis Miserendino, in their 2008 report, “Flawed Renaissance: The Failure of Plan-Control-Subsidize Redevelopment,” exposed the choreography of this shady dance. For the last half century, city politicians have secured land and tax breaks for developers like Lipscomb in return for redeveloping the land. The research clearly shows that this has created what John Edwards would call two Baltimores: The bustling and vibrant Inner Harbor known to tourists and the blighted neighborhoods reflected in “The Wire.” Developers get tax breaks while an ever-shrinking middle class is squeezed to foot the city’s bills. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s political elites arrogate more power for themselves. The political machine and the developers feed off of one another, all the while perpetuating and increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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Power is concentrated in the secretive Baltimore Development Corporation, and the powerful Board of Estimates, the latter on which Dixon sits. Both entities determine which projects get city tax breaks and therefore, move forward. The authority to decide on those projects, along with the strong executive powers of the office, make Dixon a powerful woman. That kind of concentrated power in the hands of any one person makes for a heady and dangerous cocktail. In Dixon’s case, as others have written, that power has inflamed her sense of entitlement; a sense of entitlement that previously allowed Dixon to abuse her position as City Council president to do unethical favors for her sister and campaign manager.

Despite those indiscretions, Dixon has received high praise for her initial accomplishments as mayor, (reducing murders, green initiatives, etc.) while cultivating the image of a vigorous can-do executive. However, she has only nibbled around the margins of real reform. Real reform would mean ending city-subsidized development to allow natural economic growth, where Baltimore’s ever shrinking middle class and small businesses no longer bear the overwhelming tax burden to finance city programs — which come Election Day, create reliable voters. Ending the development-political complex would mean giving up power, and politicians never give up power on their own volition, especially a machine politician like Dixon. Unfortunately, even if she is convicted and removed from office, the dance will continue, just with different partners.

Dixon’s cardio-boxing accident the day after her indictment makes for an apt irony. One can dance around the ring on the carefully crafted edifice of an energetic, fighting politician. However, if the core structure on which that edifice rests is rotted, both will collapse.

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