Sheila Dixon and The Doggedly Persistent Undercurrent of Race

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.

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On Sheila Dixon, Freed Killers, College Pornography and More

Finally, after what seems like forever, Sheila Dixon is getting her day in court. Accused of stealing gift cards intended for needy families, Dixon can justifiably say that she has already been convicted in the press, and therefore, the court of public opinion. Of course, to say that is somewhat disingenuous, as politicians rise on the backs of the press and public opinion, and almost certainly fall from there as well. But the press won’t be the ones acquitting or convicting her (which makes her threat not to “allow the media to control this trial” all the more laughable), and public opinion probably won’t be changed by the verdict. For almost all interested observers, she’s already a martyr or a felon, due process be damned. (A quick check of the Sun’s message board is enough to confirm this.) Helping to diffuse potential race and gender issues is the fact that, if convicted and removed, Dixon will be replaced by Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, another African-American woman. This is a blessing. Now perhaps we can focus on the fate of just another politician accused of small-time larceny.

When I first heard that alleged killer Dante Parrish had recently been released from prison after having served only ten years for murder, I was incensed. Having read a little more, it seems as if Parrish was the victim of bad counsel at his original trial and that witnesses from that time were now recanting, forcing the state to strike a deal. What I’m thinking about now though, is the role played by the intervention of a well-intentioned (but in this case, horribly wrong)  organization, the Maryland Innocence Project, that provided the legal assistance that caused Parrish to be loosed upon the population. Did Parrish deserve a new trial? It would seem so. Was a new conviction unlikely? The state thought so. Once the trial errors were pointed out, was there really any other choice but to let Carter go? Probably not. So, does this killing lie at the feet of the Innocence Project? Emphatically: No. If individuals wrongly convicted can be exonerated by DNA evidence, then we would be worse than human to not avail them of the chance to be so. If Carter was truly guilty of the 1999 murder, then the state shouldn’t have fouled up the case. If Carter wasn’t guilty in 1999, he shouldn’t have been in jail. It’s natural to blame the liberal do-gooders when something blows up in their faces, but this one’s on the original prosecutor.

The University of Maryland Board of Regents yesterday, in a move that appeared to surprise everyone, stood up to state Delegate Andy Harris and refused to be the first university system to attempt to define and then restrict pornography. Good for them. This courageous stance comes at the threat of legislative action once the new session convenes in January, but I suspect that there’ll be more important matters in the State House than deciding how much exposed breast is too much exposed breast. If I remember correctly, the state has a bit of a financial crisis that should keep our elected officials plenty busy.

When Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California, was denied the Miss USA title because of her belief in traditional marriage, she had my full sympathy. Now, after months of ugly revelations and nasty legal tiffs, it’s become clear that she’s not the poster-child for family values that she made herself out to be. In fact, she’s become quite the media gadfly, crafting inventive ways to stay in the public eye without ever having to accomplish anything. Last night, having accepted Larry King’s invitation to appear live, she abruptly decided that she didn’t like the format and removed her microphone (oddly enough, she didn’t leave; she just sat there like a stunned duck). Frankly, I’m way past tired of these reality show, event driven insta-celebrities who have neither talent nor aspirations beyond staying topical. We should attach a clinical-sounding name to the phenomenon. How about “Gosselinistic Personality Disorder?”

The Ravens tried out a couple of other kickers, but apparently they were even worse than Steve Hauschka. Hauschka says that the players “are backing me up.” Be careful there, Steve. They just might be backing you up against a wall if you miss another clutch kick…