BALTIMORE (AP) — Sipping a tea latte in the window of a Baltimore mall, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, whose long political career was derailed by a fraud conviction, waved at a seemingly never-ending stream of admirers.
"You look so beautiful!" one passer-by mouthed, tracing a heart shape on the glass. Another woman and her sheepish teenage daughter gingerly approached Dixon as she walked out of the coffee shop.
"Ms. Dixon?" the woman said, "I have one question for you. Can I have a hug?"
It's not the reaction one might expect a disgraced ex-politician ousted for stealing gift cards meant for poor children. But in Baltimore, Dixon — even five years after being booted from office — is still The Mayor.
Born and bred in West Baltimore with no family ties to City Hall, she moved up the political ladder on her own, from City Council member to Council president, to the first woman to hold the highest office in the city. She's still greeted with hugs, praise and pleas to continue her latest election bid for mayor, despite losing the Democratic primary in April to State Sen. Catherine Pugh, who once served on the council with Dixon.
Pugh narrowly won the nomination and, in a city where voter registration heavily favors Democrats, faces an easy race against Republican Alan Walden.
The primary, though, was characterized by mudslinging. Pugh claimed Dixon volunteers intimidated voters, and Dixon alleged that Pugh offered chicken boxes and rides to the polls in exchange for votes.
On primary night, Dixon cryptically proclaimed: "I am not through yet."
Now, with less than three weeks until the general election, her intentions have become clear. Dixon has launched a write-in campaign, even though no write-in candidate has ever won an election in the city's history, Baltimore elections chief Armstead Jones said.
Why take the risk?
"I feel like I need to fight until the end, because I don't want to look back and think, 'Shoulda, coulda, woulda,'" Dixon said.
Maybe the real question is: why not?
"She has a heart for people," said Linda Alston, who gave Dixon a big hug after running into her in the mall. "She made a mistake. We all make mistakes."
As Dixon walked away she handed Alston a campaign palm card.
"Don't forget to write me in!" she said. "You know I will!" Alston shouted back at her.
Dixon said she has a core group of about 12 volunteers working to promote the campaign, which consists of passing out palm cards to constituents on the street and at events, sending mailers and phone banking. Roughly 1,200 more are willing to pitch in to help spread the word, she said.
Funding is tight — she's got roughly $5,000 in the bank. But she's determined to make sure Baltimore residents know she hasn't gone away.
Dixon said the results of the primary, in which state election officials decertified the result, inspired her to revive her campaign. After a precinct-level investigation of irregularities, the State Board of Elections found problems with about 1,600 provisional ballots and some precincts opening late, but concluded they weren't enough to change the outcome. Dixon said she hopes to restore some faith for those who feel disenfranchised.
"I'm from here. I pay taxes. I've been just really disheartened by what I've seen," she said. "Whatever happens, if people are coming out to vote who were discouraged, if it means making history, if it means the city Board of Elections will get it right this time, it's worth it."
Win or lose, Dixon has an order of business to take care of, and soon: to commission a portrait of herself to join the rest of the city's previous mayors on the walls of City Hall. She didn't have the opportunity before she resigned from office in 2010.
"One way or another," Dixon said with a smile, "I'll be watching over them."