Much is being made lately of the fact that many of Mayor Sheila Dixon‘s city constituents have come to her defense as she is tried for theft. Not surprisingly, the folks that are rallying around her are those with whom she has had contact, people for whom she has delivered subsidies and contracts from city government. Neighborhood groups and charities that subsist on taxpayer largess continue to profess faith in the mayor. The Maryland Minority Contractors Association Inc. has even started its own surreal campaign on the behalf of Dixon and a city councilwoman also under indictment, which they’re calling S.O.S. (Save Our Sisters). No one should be surprised at any of this.
It also helps if you’ve been able to convince your supporters that they are an embattled minority, and that you are their defender. This is where the undercurrent of racial politics comes into play, even though it shouldn’t, as blacks represent a majority in the city and Dixon’s likely successor is another African-American woman. For some of the Friends of Sheila, loyalty may be more about relationships built over years in city government, and more to the point, what the Mayor can deliver, should she be acquitted. In the real world, friendship and connections trump the quest for justice every time.
Beyond that, however, for many city residents, especially those in the African American community, what they see is one more black politician being hunted down and cornered by the white establishment. (The symbolism is intentional.) This is the same “defense of community” reflex that has made O.J. Simpson and former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick martyrs. Many of the people of Washington, D.C. refused to judge Marion Barry’s actions, regardless of what the videotapes showed, and then, when he had finished his prison term for a drug conviction, promptly returned him to the office of mayor. He still serves his constituents on the City Council today.
This is why Dixon’s attorneys used six challenges to exclude whites from the jury (three finally made it) and state prosecutors used three challenges to exclude blacks (seven ended up in the jury). Even if no one wants to speak openly about it, there is a doggedly persistent undercurrent of race in these proceedings, an undercurrent that threatens to bring out the worst in all of us.
And let’s be fair: as unreasonably supportive as the African American community may be to a crooked politician who got caught with her hand in the cookie gift card jar, there is almost certainly a rush to judgement by whites anxious to bring her down, which serves only to intensify the “us vs. them” mentality and the defensiveness of the mayor’s supporters. No matter what picture we may try to paint in polite company, the issue of racial identity still cuts deep in Baltimore, and in the United States generally. Sadly, race will no doubt play a role in the verdict, and then the reaction to that verdict. After the dust has settled, expect the losing racial group to entrench its opinions even deeper. Welcome to post-racial America, everyone.
Crooked Histories: Maryland, along with a handful of other states, has a particular history of official corruption. Maryland Governors Marvin Mandel and Spiro Agnew both faced trials, convictions and in Mandel’s case, imprisonment and eventual vindication.
Illinois, however, had established itself as the king of official malfeasance long before Rod Blagojevich became a household name. His predecessor, George Ryan served a prison term for corruption, as did a number of other former governors from that state. Powerful Congressman Dan Rostenkowski was forced from office after having been convicted of mail fraud, and I haven’t even mentioned the city of Chicago. Not far behind is the state of Louisiana, the home of governors Edwin Edwards and Huey “Kingfish” Long.
So, Maryland is not alone as it endures the spectacle of yet another public official on trial for impropriety. And it is not alone in having its dishonest politicians continue to enjoy broad public support, even as embarrassing revelation follows embarrassing revelation in the press. As a matter of fact, I remember something on a much larger scale happening about ten years ago, in a case that brought together whites and blacks in common defense of a sleazy pol. Remember a guy named Bill Clinton?
See? This Dixon mess isn’t so bad after all.