Sharon Denise Dixon admits the past four years have not been easy. As a newcomer to politics, Dixon says she had a steep learning curve after she assumed leadership of the 24th Ward in 2007 – a curve made steeper, she says, by the troubling conditions left by her predecessor.
“I walked into a complete mess, to be honest,” said Dixon, 48. “I had issues on every level, drugs, crime, violence … I came into a bad situation, and it quickly became worse.”
“The ward has just been left out of the loop for the last 20, 25 years,” she continued, recalling a friend who referred to the 24th as a “throw-away” ward. “I’ve done my best to try to change that.”
On Tuesday, voters in South Austin and Lawndale will go to the polls to choose between Dixon and the man she claims is responsible for that mess: Michael Chandler, the 58-year-old former alderman who represented the ward for 12 years before Dixon unseated him.
While the candidates are the same, it’s a far more heated race than four years ago, when Dixon surprised everyone by unseating Chandler – a man who had three terms under his belt, a sizeable campaign bank roll and the backing of Mayor Richard Daley – by just 192 votes.
With the April 5th election fast approaching, news reports show both sides are slinging insults, with Dixon suggesting her opponent packed the February ballot with sham candidates to ensure a run-off. There were 18 candidates in all last time around, with Dixon winning the most votes at 19.5 percent and Chandler coming in second with 13 percent.
Dixon says she became involved in community activism when, frustrated with a lack of city services, she decided to start a block club. She has also been active with the NAACP and received an “Unsung Hero” award in 2005 for her community work.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is now working on a master’s in social work at Loyola University.
Until 2007, Dixon’s work experience was far from political. She had worked in food services at Cook County Hospital, as a flight attendant for American Airlines, in Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s MRI department and at Ada S. McKinley Community Services.
Her lack of political experience meant she lacked the connections that many new politicians have to ease their transitions, Dixon said.
“I had a lot of work to do to come into this office and learn the job,” she said. “In the end, I was victorious.”
Dixon points to several “small victories” as markers of her success. She says she’s in negotiations to bring a new sports dome to the ward, as well as a skating rink and bowling alley; plans are laid for a street project to upgrade Roosevelt Road; and a new olive oil factory is expected to bring upwards of 200 jobs to the ward.
She says her priorities for next term are job creation, more new businesses, the elimination of the 24th Ward’s “food desert” and working toward a balanced city budget.
Dixon has had to overcome some controversy in her first term: She was arrested Jan. 20, 2009, the night of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, after arguing with police officers near the scene of a fire on the Far North Side.
The alderman has said she was trying to tell officers their roadblocks were dangerous when they became irate; when she asked for their badge numbers, they placed her under arrest for drunken driving, she said.
The charges were dropped last year, and in January, Dixon filed a lawsuit against the police officers that “dragged me through the mud, accused me of something that wasn’t true and damaged my reputation in my community,” she said.
As in 2007, it appears Chandler has a financial advantage in this race. Dixon’s most recent campaign filing, for the period ending Dec. 31, 2010, shows her campaign raised no money in the preceding six-month period. Nor has she has reported any donations larger than $1,000 since Jan. 1, as required by law.
Her December filing showed the campaign had about $34,000 in the bank, but that it owed $50,000 in debt, largely in loans the alderman made to her own campaign.
In February 2010, Dixon challenged Congressman Danny Davis (7th) in the Democratic primary election. She placed third out of four candidates, with just over 13 percent compared to Davis’ 66 percent.
Telephone number: 773-522-2430
Campaign headquarters: 1630 S. Central Park Avenue