EDGING her way through the throng in City Council chambers, Sharon Pratt Dixon, the Democratic national committeewoman for the District of Columbia, confidently "works" the folks for all they're worth -- alone. Her husband, City Council Chairman Arrington L. Dixon, is nowhere to be seen, and it doesn't look as if he is missed.
At 7:30 p.m. the committeewoman is preparing for a long evening of political arm-twisting at a meeting of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. The meeting, held to fill the seat vacated by Mayor Marion Barry, is considered the first test of the new mayor's political strength as a party boss. Sharon Dixon is spearheading the opposition to the mayor's handpicked replacement -- John L. Ray.
"This could be interminable," she warns. "They go about this as if they were electing the pope."
Dixon's untouched morning makeup has begun to fade, from rosy cheeks to blotchy streaks, leaving her face tired and drawn, older than her 34 years. The fatigue of a busy day's journey into a long night has produced puffy circles under her eyes that weren't there earlier in the day, but the animation and intensity are still high, the wit trenchant and the self-assuredness unflagging.
The image she conveys is not that of a traditional politician's wife, decked out for constituents and television cameras, looking fresh as a daisy. Tonight Sharon Dixon has no intention of serving as anybody's boutonniere. If anything, she acts like one of the "back-room boys" as she buttonholes committee members, canvassing for votes.
Six ballots and nearly four hours later the mayor's man wins, but not without a struggle. Dixon has again demonstrated she has no need or desire to hitch a free ride on her husband's identity. What's more, Arrington Dixon -- who this evening remained conspicuously in the background -- is the first to admit that his wife is a free agent: "Sharon's tough. That's a fact.
"And she doesn't feel in the least bit inhibited when it comes to voicing her own opinions, God bless her. In fact, sometimes I get into trouble because people associate Sharon's very independent views as being my own, and that's not always the case."
Earlier in the day in her office at the Potomac Electric Power Co., where she has been an associate general counsel for two years, Dixon spoke about the need to be independent and liberated when married to an up-and-coming political figure.
"I have very assiduously attempted to carve out my own area, separate and apart from Arrington's, and I feel very much my own person. But I'd never say it has been easy. In the beginning I was very uncomfortable constantly being perceived as only 'Mrs. Arrington Dixon.' It really is difficult when you are the spouse of a politician -- the entire family almost becomes subsumed by the presence of the political figure. This had a lot to do with me deciding that I needed to get involved in politics in my own right rather than operate by and through Arrington.
"So that's when I decided to stand for the Democratic State Committee [in 1976] and then the following year was elected national committeewoman. But I still don't know how the business community really responds to me; sometimes they don't seem to know whether to treat me as Arrington's wife or as Sharon Dixon, an attorney."
A third-generation Washingtonian, Dixon followed the wishes of her father, Superior Court Judge Carlisle E. Pratt ("He was very interested in me becoming a lawyer and quickly disabused me of any other career notions"), and was graduated from Howard University Law School in 1968. While an undergraduate at Howard she met Arrington, who was then studying computer science.
Married 12 years, the Dixons have two daughters -- Aimee, 10, and Drew, 8. Dixon says the fine art of juggling her own professional ambitions, which include "going as far, doing and earning as much in the corporate world as any man" (her present position at Pepco pays in the "high 30s -- not nearly enough for what I'm worth") and the preservation of a close-knit family unit, with the demands levied on the spouse of a politician, is at times "frustrating and full of tensions."
Some difficulties, Dixon feels, stem from public demands that she fulfill the classic role of the political wife instead of pursuing her own career. "There's a tension when people automatically expect me to attend brunches, etc. with Arrington, and my feeling remiss if I don't. But sometimes I simply can't. I have professional responsibilities that are demanding (besides Pepco, Dixon is House Speaker Tip O'Neill's representative on the D.C. Criminal Code Revision Commission), and I just can't leave my job to attend all these political social events or stay out late in the evening, because I have an entirely different schedule the next day from Arrington's."
Dixon gives the impression of a woman in control, one who's out to make a name for herself. She wears her business suit like a coat of armor, uses her intellect and analytical ability as a shield. Articulate and poised, she handles difficult questions easily; nothing seems to phase her.
When asked whether people try to get to her husband through her, she crisply retorts, "from time to time, but not the second time," stressing that she and her husband "make it a policy to keep our professional lives separate. But when you are married, people assume that you only operate as one viewpoint, one thought. That's simply not the case with us."
She is annoyed people think she might lobby her husband. "People would never assume that if I were a man and Arrington's sibling instead of a woman and his spouse. I don't recall ever hearing it said of the Kennedy brothers. It's a double standard. I think that there's every reason to hold me accountable for my actions, but I won't be held to a double standard."
Yet for all her independence, Dixon reveals a traditional trait -- a concern not to threaten her man. She was distressed by an article in last August's Washingtonian which included the Dixons among the 100 most powerful people in Washington, but offered the comment that Sharon "is said by some to be the more capable of the two."
"I didn't care for that," she bristles. "I thought it was an unfortunate and unnecessary remark. I think we're both capable in our own right. I don't believe we'd have the good relationship that we do if that were the case. It didn't seem to bother Arrington as much as it did me, but then he's much more thick-skinned than I am."
Then the only vulnerability of the day emerges as a footnote when she adds, "Actually, it troubled me deeply."
But the person who should have been upset said he couldn't take objection. "After all," Arrington Dixon said, "it's really the truth."