Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned Thursday, apologizing for the harm she has caused to the city’s image amid a growing scandal over her sales of a self-published children’s book series.
It was the latest blow to the leadership of a city that’s seen two mayors resign in scandal in less than a decade and a third one decline to seek another term after a riot over police misconduct and a soaring murder rate.
Pugh, a Democrat, submitted a letter of resignation with Thursday’s date filled in by hand. Her resignation is effective immediately, her attorney Steven Silverman said at a 96-second news conference at his offices in downtown Baltimore.
Pugh did not attend, Silverman took no questions and there was no indication when she would emerge from the seclusion she’s imposed on herself since her last news conference March 28.
“This is a sad day for Mayor Pugh and a sad day for the city of Baltimore,” the lawyer said.
Silverman then read aloud from a prepared statement from the mayor, who has been holed up in her Ashburton home, suffering from pneumonia and emotional distress as her dream job slipped away, her reputation in tatters.
“I'm sorry for the harm that I have caused to the image of the city of Baltimore and the credibility of the office of the mayor,” Pugh, 69, said in the statement. “Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward."
She thanked new Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young — formerly the City Council president who has now ascended to Baltimore’s top job for the duration of her term — for his "steadfast leadership in my absence."
While in isolation at her home, Pugh issued a defiant pledge last month to return to work. But that resolve gave way after federal agents raided her home and City Hall office a week ago. She became the second Baltimore mayor in a decade to quit in connection with a criminal investigation; Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned in 2010.
The mayor’s staff was summoned to a Thursday afternoon meeting at City Hall to inform them of the news. Pugh’s portraits will be removed from city buildings, and her signature will no longer appear on city documents.
“I saw a woman, a politician, an elected leader who was absolutely dedicated to this city,” City Solicitor Andre Davis told reporters at City Hall as he held back tears. “I’m very sad. I didn’t think I would get emotional.”
Davis said he wasn’t involved in her decision. Although Silverman had explained the delay in Pugh taking action on her future by saying his client was not lucid at times, Davis said he was confident she was able to make the decision to resign.
“Clearly, today she has done the right thing,” he said.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who called for the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor to begin its investigation into the mayor’s conduct, described Pugh’s resignation as “the right decision, as it was clear the mayor could no longer lead effectively. The federal and state investigations must and will continue to uncover the facts.”
Hogan said the city can “now begin to move forward.”
Pugh, once seen as a more ethical option in a city with a history of wrongdoing by politicians, was overtaken ultimately by the public outcry over hundreds of thousands of dollars in deals for her “Healthy Holly” books. They were revealed in a series of articles in The Baltimore Sun that began March 13. Pugh’s story shifted as she tried to account for the first deal to be disclosed, struck with the University of Maryland Medical System when she was a member of the hospital network’s board. She nonetheless called continued questioning by reporters a “witch hunt.”
Then, after being hospitalized for pneumonia, Pugh apologized for the UMMS sales at a March 28 news conference at City Hall. But in the process of apologizing, she disclosed that some 40,000 books UMMS paid for were never produced. And in a bizarre twist, the still seriously ill mayor showed off a line of Healthy Holly baby clothes.
The following week, it was revealed that other entities had paid for the books, including health insurer Kaiser Permanente, which made payments during the period it successfully sought a $48 million city contract.
Pugh, saying her health remained poor, announced April 1 that she was going on leave to recover.
Young has been running city government in Pugh’s place. He was cementing his leadership of the city even before last week’s dramatic federal raids — including firing some of Pugh’s closest aides.
In an phone interview from Detroit, where he was attending an economic development conference, Young said his priorities will be bringing down crime and cleaning up the city. He said he plans to review the operations of every city agency, a process he expects to take four to six weeks.
“I need every citizen to be part of what I’m trying to do in terms of reducing crime and cleaning the city,” Young said. “Together, we all can do it.”
Before the scandal, Pugh tried to bring about positive change in Baltimore, but struggled to curb violent crime that reached historic levels before she took office and remained stubbornly high.
After becoming mayor in December 2016, Pugh quickly worked to implement a federal consent decree to reform the Baltimore Police Department, only to see officers in an elite gun squad charged in a breathtaking federal corruption case.
Her choice of police commissioner quit after just months on the job, charged with federal tax offenses. His resignation began a monthslong saga to replace him, which ended days before the first Healthy Holly article was published with the City Council’s confirmation of a new commissioner.
As Earlene Taylor, 61, shopped Thursday at the Honey Carry-Out shop in Greenmount West, she said the revelations about Pugh’s business dealings, combined with the recent FBI raid at her house, shattered her support for the mayor.
“I voted for her, but when you lose trust in somebody, it’s hard to get it back,” Taylor said.
Sandra Grate, 65, was upset to hear Pugh resigned. She believes politicians and others ganged up on Pugh to force her out of office.
Grate, an administrative assistant at Morgan State University, didn’t vote for Pugh and didn’t necessarily approve of the job she was doing. Still, she said it was wrong to attack Pugh’s character.
“She may have done some things unethically, but how they’re doing her is just unfair,” she said. “It’s just a very sad thing. My heart goes out to her.”
In office, Pugh created a Violence Reduction Initiative that aimed to address the root causes of crime, sponsored business entrepreneurship classes for teens and created a grassroots cabinet of community members to advise her.
Outside of politics, Pugh had worked as a banker and journalist, helped establish the city marathon and the Baltimore Design School, opened a clothing boutique in Pigtown, and served as dean and director of Strayer's Business College, as Strayer University was then known.
Pugh added elected official to her resume in 1999 when she won a seat on the City Council. She was appointed to a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2005 and, the next year, was elected to the state Senate. Pugh ran for mayor in 2011 but came in second to Democrat Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
State Sen. Pugh became more widely known during the April 2015 unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in Baltimore police custody. Pugh, whose district included west-side areas at the center of the trouble, was visible on the streets. She sought to quell emotions, urged people to go home and verbally pushed back against the likes of Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera.
During an interview with Pugh, Rivera opined that people seemed to want trouble. Pugh forcefully disagreed. When Rivera asked what they did want, Pugh said, “We want our people to go home, but we also want the media to move back, because this is just inciting people.”
Pugh had stood arm-in-arm with powerful Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore during the unrest. While others called for her to resign this spring, Cummings did not.
On Thursday, he pledged support for the new mayor.
“The image of our city has taken a hit. No doubt about it,” said Cummings, adding that he was praying for Pugh. “She always said this was her dream job. I feel very sad.”
Pugh had a rocky time settling on a police commissioner after firing Kevin Davis in January 2018, saying he had been unable to control a homicide rate that had reached historic heights in recent years.
She elevated Deputy Commissioner Darryl D. De Sousa, but less than four months later, he resigned after being charged with failing to file tax returns. A federal judge sentenced him in March to 10 months in federal prison.
With Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle serving as interim chief, Pugh’s November 2018 pick of Joel Fitzgerald, the top cop in Fort Worth, Texas, was mishandled and he withdrew his name in January. Pugh then selected New Orleans police chief Michael Harrison, and he took office in March.
A high point of Pugh’s tenure came in August 2017, when amid a roiling national controversy over monuments to the Confederacy, she drew praise for acting decisively. She ordered the overnight removal of four memorials from public spaces in Baltimore.
Pugh, a native of Norristown, Pa., came to Baltimore in the 1970s to attend Morgan State, from which she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration.
Before running for office, she had a varied career in business and media. She was president of her own marketing and public relations firm, CEPugh. She once was an editor of special supplements to The Baltimore Sun, and was a television and radio news reporter and talk show host.
She headed the General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus from 2010 to 2012, and began a two-year term as president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in February 2015. She was majority leader of the Maryland Senate from 2015 to 2016.
In 2011, she ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore mayor. She was defeated in the Democratic primary in September by Rawlings-Blake, the City Council president who had become mayor in February 2010 after Dixon resigned in a plea deal to settle corruption charges. As customary in heavily Democratic Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake went on to win in the general election.
But Rawlings-Blake, under heavy criticism for how she handled the April 2015 rioting after Gray’s death, decided against seeking re-election in 2016.
Pugh was among a crowded field to vie for the Democratic nomination and in April 2016 narrowly defeated Dixon. She won the general election in November and became Baltimore’s 50th mayor.
“It is never a joyful moment to see a person fall into disgrace and I wish her well as she goes forward,” said Bishop Douglas Miles, pastor of the Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore.
But Miles said he believed the residents of Baltimore must stop looking toward politicians to save the city.
“We can no longer look for a super person out of the political arena to come save us,” Miles said. “We must save ourselves.”