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Healthy Holly book deal poses new political challenge for Baltimore's Mayor Pugh

Running for election three years ago, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh promised in a campaign ad to be “transparent and accountable.” In another she pledged “honest leadership.”

The message was aimed at setting her apart from her chief rival, former mayor Sheila Dixon, who had been forced from office in a corruption scandal.

Now, in the early stages of her re-election bid, Pugh has come under fire for revelations that while she sat on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System, the organization paid her $500,000 for children’s books she authored.

Pugh, a state senator when she got much of the money, failed to disclose the no-bid deal on her General Assembly ethics forms.

Clarence “C4” Mitchell IV, a WBAL talk radio host, said that in the public’s mind the book deal smacks of “old fashioned corruption.”

Questions about the books — they feature a girl named Healthy Holly who promotes good diet and exercise — come as Pugh’s administration has been unable to quell the relentless violence on Baltimore’s streets. The annual homicide tally remained above 300 in each of her first two years in office. And this year has been bloodier than last so far.

Coverage of University of Maryland Medical Center board deals and Mayor Pugh's 'Healthy Holly' books »

Analysts say it’s the violence, more than the book scandal, that could determine whether voters return Pugh to office.

Mitchell said if people somehow feel safer when they go to the polls next spring for the Democratic primary, Pugh’s record could look quite different. But right now, he said, she’s “a wounded mayor.”

“Unless there’s a complete crime turnaround, it looks like her administration is just incompetent,” Mitchell said. “She’s very vulnerable.”

The book controversy involves a previously undisclosed deal in which the university medical system paid Pugh for 100,000 copies of her self-published Healthy Holly books, in five orders of 20,000 books at $5 each, from 2011 to 2018.

Amid furor over the deal, Pugh has resigned from her seat on the UMMS board, pledged to give $100,000 of the book money back to the medical system, and updated her Senate ethics forms to disclose the arrangement.

She has not apologized for the deal, and issued a statement saying she was proud of the books.

“Despite all that has happened, I am glad that the important messages in the book reached our city’s children,” the statement read. “I never thought this would lead to today.”

She did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Some political observers say that next year’s primary election — which in heavily Democratic Baltimore all but determines who will be mayor — is far enough away that voters haven’t begun paying close attention.

Nina Kasniunas, a political scientist at Goucher College, said that by primary day in April 2020, what now looks like a major scandal could have faded in significance.

But Kasniunas said potential challengers will be watching closely and trying to determine whether the book deal creates a new opportunity to run, especially outsiders who could pitch a cleaner brand of politics.

“You won’t see anything publicly yet,” she said “This is when people huddle together with their closest advisers.”

While no one has said they will run against Pugh next year, several people are regarded as potential candidates. Dixon and City Councilman Brandon Scott both say they’re considering a run. Former police department spokesman T.J. Smith and state Sen. Bill Ferguson have not ruled out mounting a challenge.

News of the mayor’s book deal broke at a moment when it looked like Pugh was finally moving on from a difficult winter.

The Monday before The Baltimore Sun published an article about the deal, Pugh delivered her State of the City speech at City Hall, pledging to reduce property tax rates for homeowners to below $2 for the first time in decades. She touted the launch of new programs to build affordable housing and invest in distressed neighborhoods, an initiative to make community college free for Baltimore students, and a program that targets city resources at the most violent neighborhoods.

The evening of the speech, the City Council unanimously confirmed Michael Harrison, Pugh’s well-regarded pick to lead the police department. The vote represented a rebound for Pugh after a controversial candidate ultimately withdrew and the conviction on federal tax charges of Pugh’s first choice for the job.

Most importantly for the city’s residents and Pugh alike, it signaled that the police department had a leader in place to focus on fighting crime.

Then the New York Times Magazine published a cover story titled “The Tragedy of Baltimore.” It underscored how Pugh’s administration has struggled to find a compelling strategy to fight violence while also pursuing civil rights reforms required under a federal decree. The mayor was quoted in the story taking issue with the significance of homicide numbers.

A day after the article’s publication online, the Healthy Holly story broke and it has stayed in the news.

Pugh ran for mayor with the support of much of the Democratic political establishment. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore gave her a critical endorsement, and many of her colleagues in the General Assembly publicly backed her.

Now, General Assembly leaders are pushing a new law to ban no-bid contracts between the medical system and its board members.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who endorsed Pugh in 2016 and has worked closely with her on Pimlico issues, paused when asked about Pugh’s sale of books to the medical system.

“It’s unsettling,” he said. “It’s disturbing. I’ll leave it at that.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he thought Pugh, who was a member of his leadership team, still could help turn the city around. Like many others interviewed, he cited the choice of Harrison as police commissioner as a positive move.

“I supported her as majority leader, I supported her for mayor and she has the potential to do a great job,” Miller said.

Some political leaders refrained from discussing Pugh’s current problems. Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young declined to comment after a meeting of the city’s spending board Wednesday.

And Scott, the councilman, said the Healthy Holly scandal won’t be a factor in his decision-making on whether to run for mayor.

“I’m just focusing on my job,” he said.

Dixon likewise declined to comment on the controversy.

“If I decide I’m running, it has nothing to do with her book issues,” Dixon said. “I’m not commenting on what Catherine Pugh is going through other than I’m keeping her in my prayers.”

Asked about the book deal, the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., who leads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, compared it to the gift-card embezzlement prosecution that ended Dixon’s tenure as mayor. But he also said he’d be willing to look past Pugh’s current problems.

Gywnn endorsed then-councilman Nick Mosby for mayor in 2016, but said Pugh had done a good job considering “she inherited a mess.”

“She’s moving the right way,” Gwynn said. “If she has no more hiccups, I would support her.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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