A Determined New Mayor For D.c. With A Pledge Of Honest Efficiency, Sharon Pratt Dixon Has Won A Tough Job In A Troubled City. She Said She Was Up To The Task - And The Voters Resoundingly Agreed.

Posted: November 08, 1990

WASHINGTON — Winning was not the question. This is the question: Can Sharon Pratt Dixon, non-charismatic, blunt and cool, a national party insider with few links to local Democratic officials, resurrect local government in a city polarized along racial and class lines, a city whose current mayor was the subject of national controversy?

Dixon, and many others here, are confident she can.

Democrats here claim eight times as many registered voters as Republicans. So when Dixon scored a come-from-behind victory over four other Democrats in the September primary, her election was virtually assured, even though her GOP opponent was the popular former police chief, Maurice Turner. Tuesday, Dixon garnered 87 percent of the vote cast, against Turner's 11 percent.

Yesterday on the steps of the District Building, one of Dixon's fans, a local lawyer, had a present for Washington's next mayor. Catching Dixon's attention, the woman handed her a 14-carat gold charm in the shape of a broom, to commemorate Dixon's oft-repeated campaign promise to sweep clean local government.

And a sweep it was for Dixon, who in replacing Marion Barry becomes the first female black mayor of a major U.S. city and a powerful figure in the national Democratic Party.

A couple of weeks before the election, the 46-year-old Dixon, a lawyer, talked about Washington's problems: "Sure, I'm aware of the magnitude, and sometimes it concerns me," she said in a deep, melodious, quick-paced voice surprising in a woman barely 5-foot-2.

"But I know it will all happen. The key is to find the right talent and match it with the right occasion. There's too much talent here not to draw on, and not to succeed."

A traditional liberal on issues of human rights and government obligations to citizens, Dixon also advocates a tighten-the-belt fiscal philosophy, and passionately believes economic development is the key to Washington's future.

Resolute - even abrasive - during debates and candidates' forums, she softened her stance, if not her speech, when she talked to voters in person. She would listen to voters' comments and respond, usually thoughtfully, almost always without smiling, then forget to remind them to vote for her.


Above all, Sharon Pratt Dixon, a third-generation Washingtonian, loves her city; she has never lived elsewhere.

Becoming mayor for her is "of course, a great challenge but also a great opportunity to help move the District of Columbia into becoming a city of commerce for those in the minority communities as well as women. I think if it can happen anywhere, it can happen here.

"Washington, D.C., has a lot to work with," she said.

Dixon, clearly, can't wait to get started.

At a recent lunch of about 50 D.C. food and liquor wholesalers, Dixon described ways Washington could improve its business climate. Her ideas poured forth rapidly, she seemed impatient to get on with the tasks and took for granted the group's acceptance of her notions of what needed to be done.

When one of the wholesalers asked skeptically whether she could make good on her pledge to fire 2,000 municipal employees, she said flatly, "I'll do whatever it takes to get it done. Nobody enjoys a cut; the question is whether it's a surgical cut, or a butcher's cut. I favor the surgeon.

"We're going to go after the source of the problem, those nonproductive workers, and do it in a way to protect and insulate those who have been trying to produce. . . . When we get these government costs under control, we can bring stability to district tax rates and get the increased federal dollars we deserve."

Dixon also repeated her commitment to actively encouraging minority and women-owned businesses, drawing winces from some.

"Washington is becoming a city of commerce, and what we must do is make that happen in a way that makes sense for everybody," she said. "There's little question that the District of Columbia has to come of age in terms of more minority participation in the business community. Otherwise we're going to continue with the kind of tensions - tensions with an economic basis - we have today, particularly among youngsters."

Telling people things they didn't want to hear was a hallmark of the Dixon campaign. But the straightforward approach paid off: As a candidate, she received high marks from both voters and political experts for her pithy speeches and on-target analysis of district issues.

The sunburst smile that transforms her face rarely appeared during campaign stops, both because she fought for months to be taken seriously and because she disdains standard politicians' glad-handing, her advisers said.

"When she stands up and turns it on, there's no contest," said Ron Walters, chair of Howard University's political-science department. "She clearly comes off as knowing what she's talking about."

There is a downside, however. Listen to one Washington insider who asked not to be identified: "She's the kind of bright person who says the debate is over when I speak; the ability to compromise is the skill she has the least of," he said.

"She also faces a much more activist Council who I think will be wary of her from the beginning. Clearly she has the capacity to lead; the problem is it will take her, or anyone else, more than four years to dismantle the Barry apparatus and reconstruct the government."

Creating new solutions in the face of systemic resistance comes naturally to Dixon, whose most visible successes came during her 13-year tenure as a Potomac Electric Power Co. executive. As vice president of consumer affairs and later of public policy, she initiated programs assisting low- and fixed- income ratepayers, including a 25 percent discount for qualified customers.

Co-workers there pointed to her ultimately successful quest to place satellite offices in poor neighborhoods as an example of her tenacity. "She was somewhat distant but always courteous," said one who preferred anonymity. ''I enjoyed working with her; she always had a good idea of what to do to get a job done."

The new mayor's father, a retired judge, her grandmother and her aunt jointly raised her after her mother died. She attended district public schools and earned both her bachelor's and law degrees from Howard University. In 1972, she began teaching at the district's Antioch School of Law along with continuing her law practice.

She worked for home rule for the district and was appointed to the panel that transferred the district's criminal court authority from Congress to the city. She also worked in the Democratic Party, holding various posts in the local committee and managing the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of her late

mentor, Patricia Roberts Harris, in 1981. She eventually became treasurer of the national committee, after first seeking the party chairmanship now held by Ron Brown.

She married Arrington Dixon, a former city councilman turned consultant, in 1966, and the couple had two daughters, Aimee, 21, and Drew, 19. The Dixons divorced in 1982.

Candidate Dixon plotted her course carefully, consulting with her daughters two years ago, floating the idea to party regulars at the 1988 Democratic convention, taking a one-time five-figure buyout from Potomac Electric Power largely to fund her campaign.

Said C. Delores Tucker, a longtime Philadelphia activist and national Democratic Party official: "It's not going to be easy for her; it never is for a woman, particularly here (in Washington), where the sexist notion is more predominant than in many, many cities."

"But I think she'll be an exemplary mayor. She's a very intelligent, caring, sensitive individual."


* Born: Jan. 30, 1944, in Washington

* Education: D.C. public schools; B.A. with honors in political science, Howard University, 1965; J.D., Howard University School of Law, 1968.

* Career: private practice, 1968-72; Antioch School of Law faculty, 1972-76; with general counsel's office at Potomac Electric Power Co., 1976-83; vice president of consumer affairs, and later of public policy, Potomac Electric Power Co., 1983-89; of counsel with Sidley & Austin law firm, September 1989-present.

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