This is the second of two profiles of candidates for D.C. mayor.
She has this vision thing, friends say. She sees opportunities and openings, often long before they are apparent to others. It has led her through an unlikely progression of jobs to a succession of professional coups. It may even take her to a top-floor office suite at the District Building.
Yet there are big questions that both supporters and detractors ask about Democrat Sharon Pratt Dixon, the once longshot outsider and now acknowledged front-runner in Tuesday's election for D.C. mayor: Does she have the management experience to tame the District's runaway deficit and burgeoning bureaucracy? Is she familiar enough with its government, they ask, to have an immediate impact on its pressing problems?
The re'sume', please.
She has never held public elective office, never worked in government. A native of this very public-sector town, she has spent the bulk of her professional life in private industry. She has never managed more than 25 people or a budget of more than $1 million. The D.C. government work force is 48,000; its operating budget is $3 billion.
Her jobs were rarely conventional ones -- part-time lawyer in her father's firm, instructor at an unorthodox law school, treasurer of a national political party, consumer affairs specialist for a utility.
Even when her assignments started out one way, she developed in another. As the first black and first woman treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, for instance, she made her mark more as a political diplomat than a bookkeeper or fund-raiser. She joined the staff of Potomac Electric Power Co. as an all-purpose, in-house lawyer and created her own job as director of consumer affairs. She later became vice president for consumer affairs.
The doubting view of Dixon's professional progression, often heard from mid-management D.C. employees who resent her campaign promise to slash 2,000 workers from their ranks, is that the product she produces best is herself: "DIXICO," some sneer.
The hopeful view is expressed in numerous interviews by people like Dan Wedderburn, chairman of the Consumer Utilities Board, a local citizen watchdog organization that opposed Pepco's requests for rate increases and attempts to expand its plant on Benning Road NE.
"I did not like positions she took at Pepco," he said of Dixon. "But she represents her client as best she can. Her client was Pepco at one time. Now, I think her client is the people of this city."
A third-generation Washingtonian, Dixon graduated from Howard University Law School in 1968 and climbed directly into the political trenches. Married to Arrington L. Dixon and pregnant with their first child, she worked in his campaign for the Ward 5 school board seat. He won the primary, but lost the run-off by a slim margin. The next day, Nov. 27, Sharon Dixon delivered their daughter, Aimee.
Sharon Dixon knocked on doors until the polls closed, yet blamed herself for the loss. "I was covering the precincts," she recalled recently, "but I couldn't do it too well the day before" giving birth. Two years later they had a second daughter, Drew.
In 1971, Dixon began a five-year, part-time association with her father's small general practice law firm -- Pratt Bowers & Newman -- where she handled divorce and child custody cases, estate settlements and incorporations.
All three principals in the firm would eventually go on the bench: her father, Carlisle E. Pratt, and Shellie F. Bowers to D.C. Superior Court, and Theodore Roosevelt Newman Jr. to the D.C. Court of Appeals. "I had three excellent teachers, three scholars of the law," Dixon recalled.
The now-retired Pratt, who had given his daughter Black's Law Dictionary as a birthday present when she was a young girl, hoped young Sharon would take over the firm. Not so.
"I enjoyed it, but I needed a little more diversity," Dixon said in an interview this week. "It wasn't something that was easy to do with a young family. I always liked being involved a little more with public policy, which was hard to do in a traditional law practice. For those two reasons, teaching was better."
So in 1972, Dixon began teaching full-time at the experimental Antioch Law School on 16th Street NW. Founded that year as a "public interest law firm," it was an offshoot of an anti-poverty law program at George Washington University and was affiliated with Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
The school threw the same battery of course work at its students that other law schools did, but required them to represent low-income clients and nonprofit advocacy groups as volunteers.
It was also unusual in that it used clinical settings to teach the law. Much as medical professors do in teaching hospitals, Dixon used to round up her students and march them off to court to show them how to try cases.
Antioch, which closed in 1988 because of lack of funds, was criticized for not always having a high enough caliber of students and faculty, and once was in danger of losing its accreditation. But Dixon received high marks from some of those who remember her tenure there.
"She taught me the more traditional course of civil procedure, which is probably one of the most important courses you take in law school," said Amy R. Goldson, who serves on Dixon's finance committee.
One of the requirements of professors at Antioch was that they "deal with the cutting edge, the policies that drive legislators and courts to create law," Dixon said. She found herself concentrating on economic influences.
Eventually, she also found herself wanting to make more money, and figured energy would play a major role in the changing economy. "There aren't many corporate opportunities in Washington," she said. "Pepco was one such option." And Dixon had a plan.
"You watch, by the time I leave here, I'll be vice president," Dixon's aunt Aimee remembers Dixon telling her when she took a junior slot in the general counsel's office at Pepco in 1976.
As a Pepco lawyer, Dixon's official duties ranged from writing multimillion-dollar contracts for the 7 million tons of coal the company burns each year, to negotiating the purchase of expensive turbines, tracking energy legislation and handling damage claims from supermarkets after power outages.
She said she took it on herself to impress upon Pepco officials the need to serve the community more considerately and compassionately. She challenged and cajoled the company's leadership until, in 1979, she was appointed director of the newly created office of consumer affairs.
With a budget of about $1 million that included salaries for her staff of 25, Dixon designed ways to offer discounts to thousands of low-income customers and to change the billing date to accommodate customers who relied on public assistance or Social Security checks. She also established satellite offices in areas such as Anacostia and Adams-Morgan that hired neighborhood residents part-time as customer liaisons.
One of Republican mayoral candidate Maurice T. Turner Jr.'s standard attacks on Dixon has been to claim that Pepco's only reasons for setting up satellite offices were mercenary: The company wants to collect its payments faster and more easily, he says. According to Dixon and the company, however, the satellites are there to make it easier for customers to get service and information on programs and to provide a convenient place for people to pay.
Four years later, Dixon was promoted to vice president for consumer affairs. In 1986, when her department grew to include lobbying and government relations, her title changed to vice president for public policy. Pepco insiders say she was on the verge of being promoted to senior vice president when she quit the company last year to run for mayor.
Dixon's corporate status was seen by many observers of corporate race relations as little more than window-dressing. But W. Reid Thompson, current board chairman and former chief executive officer of Pepco, who hired Dixon, said, "We wouldn't have kept her here for 12, 13 years if she hadn't been doing a fine job . . . . In Pepco we never made a corporate vice president to have a token. Everyone who has made vice president has earned it."
Her years at the utility also offer some insight into Dixon's operating style, as described by former co-workers and observers.
Close associates say that personal loyalty might well be an area of vulnerability for a Mayor Dixon. Because she is not a detail-oriented person, they say, her success in office would rise or fall on the quality of staff members she hires. And, they say, her choices are sometimes clouded by emotional attachments.
"I intend to get adequate detachment in this process to make certain that I make the best judgment of who can do the job," said Dixon, who admits a heavy inclination toward loyalty.
Some political observers have been dismayed by the amount of disarray in Dixon's campaign since she won the primary, and say it, too, mirrors some aspects of her years at Pepco.
Sources close to the campaign blame the candidate herself for much of the confusion, saying that she changes her mind frequently about direction. Others note that Dixon has a tendency to surround herself with staff members who rarely challenge her with alternative ideas of leadership.
Pepco gave Dixon flexibility, visibility and, some argue, a certain amount of clout. The year after she went to Pepco, Dixon was elected to the Democratic National Committee from the District of Columbia, a position she has held since.
The Democrats were bitterly divided by battles between its mainstream and minority constituencies in the wake of Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide reelection, and black Democrats were divided over Jesse L. Jackson's bid for the party's presidential nomination.
Amid all the squabbling, Dixon made a bold bid for chairman of the party -- appealing individually for votes as part of no faction. Later, she dropped that bid and won a prestigious consolation prize -- she became the first black and first woman to serve as national treasurer.
"She had timing, and timing is an important element in politics if you're in a position to take advantage of it," said Ivanhoe Donaldson, a former deputy D.C. mayor who as chairman of the D.C. State Democratic Committee backed Dixon's bid for DNC treasurer.
"She created opportunities, instead of waiting for them to happen," said Ron Brown, the Democratic National Committee's first black chairman. "She put a crack in the door."