By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY – It must have felt like one of life’s greatest injustices for Stephenine Dixon when she lost her mother to breast cancer just before she got to see her walk the stage her senior year at Atlantic City High School.
Dixon, though, has channeled the community activism and optimism her mother taught her – in words and by example – to become a nationally-sought-after campaign organizers and a former Atlantic City school board member.
Ironically, the school board where she help set policy was the same one her parents worked for – her mother as an elementary school teacher and her father as a cook. Over the years, Dixon has become a compassionate champion for voting and the political process for all, community supporter — and winner.
Dixon has come full circle again this year, returning to Atlantic City after working on the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams, to lead Mayor Marty Small Sr.’s campaign as his campaign manager.
“Being the daughter of an educator, my mother always instilled in me for 18 years that there’s nothing you can’t accomplish when you stay focused and stay the course for what you’re trying to achieve in life,” Dixon said. “I was blessed to have her in my life. Losing my mother to breast cancer two weeks before my high school graduation was the most critical journey of my life.
“My parents were very community oriented. My mother taught in elementary school and taught people at night so they can get their GED. My father also was retired from Atlantic City High School as the chef in the cafeteria for 25 years and cooked for the Army Reserves on the weekend and their church, Second Baptist Church,” she said.
She was elected to the Atlantic City BOE on her second try. Dixon just missed serving on city council in Atlantic City in 2003 losing to Craig Callaway in the Third Ward race by a literally a handful of absentee votes.
“I started the journey becoming more involved in parent-teacher events while my children were in school and that led to me running for a seat on the Atlantic City School Board, said the 57-year-old, who is now a grandmother. “The first time I ran I lost by 32 votes and to lose by so little and against the powers to be at that time, I automatically started campaigning by during more in my community so that people knew how sincere I was and the next year, I won as the top-vote getter in Atlantic City.
“Being in a contentious city council race for the Third Ward in Atlantic City prepared me for the journey of taking my talent on the road, but it wasn’t without heartache, frustration and the tenacity to keep pressing on. I was in court for almost the entire summer fighting for my seat which led to me losing by one vote.
Dixon said she learned from that experience is that the fight is worth it if you take what you have learned and “change the course to reflect what is needed, what needs to be changed and you go master the same street game that was used against you. So I put my plan in action and I started to work towards my plan.”
Current Atlantic City Council President George Tibbitt swears by Dixon’s effectiveness. He told the Press of Atlantic City in January when she was still with the Buttigieg campaign that he owes her a lot.
“Her strength was her community participation,” Tibbitt told newspaper. “… She had her finger on the pulse of the needs of everyone from children up to seniors. … She helped me tremendously to get elected. She brought me to communities I would never have gotten to meet. It was a fabulous teamwork we had.”
Dixon, who also serves on the statewide New Jersey Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission, has worked on the local and state campaigns for State Sen. Troy Singleton, Gov. Jon S. Corzine, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, both of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. She had worked on many other local campaigns in between.
“I worked on school board elections, city council, mayoral, freeholder, assembly, senator, governors, Congressional races and presidential,” Dixon told Front Runner New Jersey.com recently. “I thought to myself I’ve proven I can win at home so let’s take the show on the road. I worked in Willingboro for Assemblyman Troy Singleton, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Council President Zachary Chester in Trenton, and then I went to the battleground area of Richmond, Va. for Hillary Clinton.
“This was when I organized the toughest turf in Richmond and helped people get their rights restored in order to vote. The neighborhood I worked in where you had to leave before dark for the shootings were unbearable,” Dixon said as a testimony to being battle-tested.
In Small’s Democratic primary July 7, she won more than 60 percent of the vote in the Atlantic City Democratic primary race to fill the remaining term of former Mayor Frank Gilliam.
Small now moves on the take on Republican Thomas Forkin in November’s general election.
Dixon, though, was all-in for Buttigieg when Small first contacted her to run in mayoral campaign. When Buttigieg dropped out of the presidential campaign March 1, Dixon gave Small’s campaign another look and signed on.
“Mayor Small reached out to me in Iowa to congratulate me and also asked me to join his team and at the time I was going to Birmingham as the state director for Pete Buttigieg so I couldn’t make any commitments,” Dixon said. “Then we lost South Carolina and Pete ended his campaign. Marty wasted no time reaching out to me and I told him let me think about it. I felt like I just came off of a national campaign and why would I go back and work a mayoral campaign?”
Dixon, though, said after thinking about having an opportunity to run a campaign as an African-American woman, the unique challenge of doing it in a rare all vote-by-mail election, and having the experience of working on one of his city council campaigns, it was an chance she couldn’t pass up.
“What I appreciated about Mayor Small is I’ve worked on one of his city council races before but this time he asked me to be his campaign manager and very seldom do you find a local candidate choosing a black woman to lead your team, especially for Marty to always be in the mix and I respected him for that,” Dixon said, who admitted it felt ‘like old times,’ back on the campaign trail in Atlantic City.
“Not only that, I really felt at the time that he was the best candidate in the race and he was doing an amazing job. We as a team was strong willed at times and when you have leadership that’s used to doing things their way it was challenging, but what we realized is that each one of us wanted the win more than the other and we pulled it together and stayed focused,” Dixon added.
The Small campaign gave Dixon another win and energy to keep going, with a focus on voting rights, something championed by the late Rep. John Lewis.
“Where I see myself in five years is staying the course of working toward voting issues, going back and finishing what I started in college for criminal justice with a minor in criminology and starting a non-profit to continue the works of Voting Wins, LLC that I have neglected due to being on the road.”
Dixon, who is engaged to Lamont R. Hammie, touched on numerous other subjects with Front Runner New Jersey.
On the diversity of Small’s campaign team.
Stephenine Dixon: “The diversity on our team was phenomenal and I appreciate everyone who put in the work to ensure we won by over 52 percent in every ward in Atlantic City,” Dixon said. “Coming off a presidential campaign and working for another millennium shows the youths are our future and Mayor Marty Small will keep pressing on to greater heights. I truly felt like old times, The Bangladesh team, the Latino team, the South Asian Team and Team Small were amazing.”
On Campaigning in Virginia, Beyond
Stephenine Dixon: “My Motto is ‘To Reach One Is To Teach One and Every Vote Counts.’ So I rode buses for eight hours registering people to vote and educating them on the importance of the [voting by mail] when they said they wouldn’t be able to vote. You had to meet people where they were at and at the time Pokemon was hugged and I would be out sometimes on the grounds of [Virginia Commonwealth University] running with them and registering them to vote to ensure I met my quota. I learned to be scrappy and because of it I was chosen to do the pitch speech the night before the election with vice president nominee Tim Kaine. Moving on I worked for Pete Buttigieg on the DNC Race in Atlanta and when he didn’t have enough support to become the [Democratic National Committee] chair, he challenged [Keith] Ellis and [Tom] Perez to join together so that all concerns could be heard and work together for a better DNC.
On the Road With Stacy Abrams
Stephenine Dixon: “On the road again to Savannah, Ga., I learned so much on the Abrams Campaign for the training was impeccable and it was nothing I was used to. The days were long seven days a week and the things that happened on that campaign was just unbelievable. It was rough being called out your name and watching canvassers get bit by dogs but my team became family and we had a candidate that wasn’t afraid to fight and the leadership was fierce. Stacey Abrams is one of the strongest women I know. She lifted us up and the journey was rough when you had someone like Brian Kemp doing the impossible to steal the election. It felt like I was reliving the 60’s era. But it was always said if you worked in New Jersey, you could handle anything. The tools and training that was given to us we don’t even utilize in NJ. I would definitely work for Stacey again for she clearly won that election.”
Working for Pete Buttigieg in Iowa
Stephenine Dixon: “Working in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for Pete Buttigieg was amazing. I’ve always dreamed of working on a caucus and I’m thankful but it was truly the hardest challenge I’ve had while working on a campaign. Living by the ‘Rules of the Road’ and learning the Relational Organizing model while all the candidates were knocking on doors and were just organizing and meeting people where they were at. All kinds of events and an abundance of organizational meetings, house meetings and caucus training. We had many principal events with Mayor Pete. Imagine having to get 500 people in 0 degrees out to caucus for your candidate in the worst conditions.
Imagine week after week it’s snowing and your organizers are calling you constantly saying they need AAA for they are in ditches during Dry Runs. Imagine knowing you have to have the best ground game out of 20 candidates and everyone is coming behind you trying to convince Iowans that your candidate is the best candidate to win the caucus. Mayor Pete was brilliant, humble and the hardest working candidate. His work ethic reminded me of President Barack Obama. Imagine being the only Black regional organizing director out of all the candidates and only 2 percent of color where you lived for almost a year. As a NJ State Martin Luther King Commissioner for over 15 years taught me that I can work anywhere and be unapologetically black. And guest what, we won the Iowa Caucus, a black woman from New Jersey had the second largest city in Iowa. Jersey Strong.”
Being a Mentor to African American Youth
Stephenine Dixon: As far as being a mentor for the African American youth, all I can say Let the work I’ve done speak for me and to stay focused, create a path that you can too put your names on for years to come for soon we will be standing on their shoulders, just like I’m standing on those that were before me. I have several mentors and you wouldn’t believe they are people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. My candidates inspire me to be better than them to never stop dreaming and fighting for voting rights. Working on campaigns keeps me in the loop to always keep the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others dreams alive even though they aren’t fulfilled yet. My favorite quote is Martin Luther King, A crusader for voting rights in 1957 speech title ‘Give Us the Ballet.’ Dr King spoke bluntly about the need for equal voting rights.
‘So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not process myself. I cannot make up my mind– it is made up for me,’ King said.”
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