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Pugh isn't the first Baltimore mayor to take leave of absence. In 1954, one led to a power struggle

Pugh isn't the first Baltimore mayor to take leave of absence. In 1954, one led to a power struggle
Bernard C. "Jack" Young, center, acting mayor, speaks to the news media about his intention to keep the city on an even keel during Mayor Catherine Pugh's leave of absence. Relations between a former mayor on leave and the acting mayor were not harmonious. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who took an indefinite leave of absence this week amid illness and controversy, is the latest chief executive of Baltimore to experience health problems while in office.

And while acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young says he will serve as a “placeholder” and does not plan to run for mayor in 2020, the transition of power has not always been so peaceful.

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Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. tried to fire City Council President Arthur B. Price in 1954 from his role as acting mayor in a power struggle over who had the authority to sign city pension bills during D’Alesandro’s four-month stay at Bon Secours for a “checkup and rest.”

“I am putting Mr. Price on notice that, as of this moment, he may no longer pretend to the authority of acting mayor,” D’Alesandro wrote. “I am giving public notice that Mr. Price is not to be recognized as acting mayor by city officials or by anyone else.”

Price responded by citing the city charter, which grants the council president the right to act as ex-officio mayor during a “sickness or necessary absence of the Mayor” and said he planned to “continue on just as I am until he prefers charges against me.”

City business could not legally be conducted from a hospital room, the acting mayor argued. Allowing D’Alesandro to do so, Price said, would amount to “a betrayal of my oath of office” and a takeover of the city “by personal mandate and dictatorial edict.”

“In view of the clear and specific nature language of the Charter,” he told D’Alesandro in a letter, “it would seem inappropriate and illegal for you to act intermittently as mayor during the continuance of your illness.”

City Solicitor Thomas N. Biddison, who was called on to settle the dispute, sided with D’Alesandro and “ruled the Mayor mayor,” The Baltimore Sun reported.

D’Alesandro returned to City Hall 24 hours later, although he continued to spend nights in the hospital, and Price stepped aside.

The feud came two years after D’Alesandro took a doctor-ordered vacation — a 16-day Caribbean cruise — after being admitted to Mercy Hospital for the flu and high blood pressure.

While the incidents generally haven’t erupted into public battles for control of the city, other mayors have been hospitalized for chest pains, shortness of breath and hypertension in the high-pressure role.

After Mayor Howard W. Jackson disappeared for more than a week in 1926, his wife revealed he had been admitted to Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. “My nerves again are all right,” he said after his return.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, then 39, was hospitalized in 1989 and diagnosed with an esophageal spasm after tests ruled out a heart attack.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake spent a night at the University of Maryland Medical Center in September 2014 after suffering chest pains and shortness of breath during the Star-Spangled Spectacular concert at Fort McHenry.

Rawlings-Blake later said she hadn’t allowed herself enough time to recover from bronchitis and an upper-respiratory infection: “I really ran myself ragged.”

In a statement, Pugh’s office cited her recent bout of pneumonia as the reason for her leave of absence, although the illness coincided with a political firestorm that has engulfed the 69-year-old mayor over a book deal that netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars during her time in office.

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Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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