It’s not just Healthy Holly. It’s not even just her creator, Mayor Catherine Pugh.
The expanding scandal over the Baltimore mayor and her children’s book business has everyone from shopkeepers to bank presidents, insiders to breakfast-table pundits abuzz over what it says about Baltimore, how it works and for whose benefit. That Pugh, who was a state senator before becoming mayor, was taking money for her books from prominent companies and organizations that got government contracts seems like blatant influence-peddling and pocket-lining to some — especially those who see so much of the city struggling with unaddressed needs.
“There seems to be two basic groups in town, the power people and the everyday people. The power people — the people with money, the establishment — they work together very well,” said longtime community activist Ralph Moore. “People find ways to get influence and connections, and people who don’t have those connections, they don’t get anything, or maybe a few crumbs.
“While they’re being ignored,” he said, “the power people are taking care of themselves.”
It was just over three weeks ago when The Baltimore Sun first revealed that Pugh was among the members of the board of the University of Maryland Medical System who had contracts with the system — in her case, a no-bid deal for it to buy $500,000 worth of her self-published “Healthy Holly” books to hand out to schools.
Since then, seemingly every day has brought news of another individual, business or organization found to have purchased books or given money to Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC — among them Kaiser Permanente, Associated Black Charities, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the Maryland Auto Insurance Fund and the financier J.P. Grant.
“I’m still shell-shocked,” said Joseph Haskins Jr., president and CEO of Harbor Bank of Maryland. “It seems to be something new every day.
“It’s almost like it’s growing legs, or tentacles.”
The fallout has been equally swift. Pugh resigned from the medical system’s board, as did other members. Then, citing medical reasons, Pugh took a leave of absence as mayor, with City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young temporarily taking over. Gov. Larry Hogan called for an investigation by the state prosecutor. The city’s Board of Ethics has launched a probe, too. The General Assembly has rushed to pass emergency legislation to reform the medical system board and its contracting practices.
Pugh, a Democrat, faces an uncertain political future. Up for re-election next year, she began 2019 in a strong financial position with almost $1 million in campaign funds. But some backers are rethinking previous contributions.
Haskins has contributed to Pugh’s past campaigns, but future solicitations will be weighed against the recent news.
“If I had this knowledge beforehand, the answer would have been a clear no,” he said. “But I didn’t have this info.”
As someone who chairs his bank’s board, Haskins is particularly disturbed by how multiple UMMS directors received lucrative contracts to provide everything from pest control to insurance services for hospitals in the system. The insurance company of board member and former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, for example, generated about $16 million in revenue in recent years from managing insurance and benefits for UMMS hospitals.
“One of the things we say to our board members: ‘You can’t get on the board and expect to get preferential treatment, a better rate on your CD or mortgage,’ ” Haskins said. “Integrity and honesty are very important for me.
“The Maryland system should be investigated. Someone didn’t have their eye on the ball or finger on the pulse,” Haskins said. “It’s almost like, ‘Join the board and get a reward.’ The mayor is the most visible, but it shouldn’t camouflage or shield other parties that have received these contracts.”
Some residents — reminded daily of the crime, poverty and other ailments that have long plagued Baltimore — are rankled that Pugh’s attention seemingly was diverted to her private business rather than that of the public that elected her.
“It was the deliberate attempt to negotiate money for business favors while the city was suffering,” said Kaye Whitehead, associate professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland and a WEAA radio talk show host.
Whitehead said she had admired what she viewed as Pugh’s political prowess, her ability to play the game, negotiate and get what she wanted for Baltimore. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking to see “the way this leveraging was used — to serve herself, and to serve the interests of the businesses,” Whitehead said.
She wonders what kind of advice Pugh has been getting, particularly when she opted for a rather bizarre press conference in which she both apologized for the book sales but also seemingly introduced a Healthy Holly brand extension into baby clothing. Whitehead showed the press conference to students, so they could discuss how to handle, or not, a political crisis.
For even casual observers of the city’s politics, much of what’s transpired just seems baffling.
“Oh, it came up at the brunch table,” said Jessie Gelles, who manages the B. Willow plant store on O’Donnell Street in Canton.
As someone who used to work as a teacher’s aide and well knows the pressing needs of so many classrooms, she can’t believe Pugh’s books were sent unordered to the Baltimore school district and now thousands of copies are sitting unused in a warehouse.
“It feels like her focus isn’t in the right space, and her heart isn’t in the right place,” Gelles said.
Next door, at the 62-year-old TV repair business he took over from his father, Donald Budreski is just angry.
“They ought to put her in jail,” he groused. “They make so much money and they still have to be greedy. I pay $4,500 in property tax here — that’s a lot of money. Where does it go?
“It’s terrible,” Budreski said. “I’m ashamed of my city.”
Meg Baird, who is from Harrisburg, Pa., heard it often when she moved to Canton several months ago: “You’re moving to Baltimore?”
Now living a couple doors from the store she works at, The Lucky Knot, Baird said she feels her adopted city just “can’t catch a break.” But she’s not going anywhere.
“I’ve always had faith, love and hope for Baltimore,” she said.
Ask Munir Bahar how he is, and he’ll respond tiredly, “Like everyone else in this city.” Bahar runs the COR Health Institute, using martial arts training to instill discipline and offer youth an alternative to the street. He previously organized the 300 Man March, an anti-violence initiative. The Healthy Holly debacle only reaffirms why so many have grown disenchanted with the city’s leadership, he said.
“People are dying. I just lost two young men,” Bahar said of two homicide victims he previously worked with. “I’m tired of the body count. Losing men I wanted to see grow up and develop. Instead I’m going to their funerals.
“You write a book and that’s it?” he said of Pugh. “Where’s the opening of rec centers, of physical fitness centers. That is all you have?”
Bahar also is frustrated by his fellow citizens, who fail to rise up and demand better from their mayor.
“We should be at City Hall demanding she resign right now,” he said. “No more of this at City Hall!”
Moore, the activist who previously directed the community center at St. Frances Academy, said he hopes the attention the Healthy Holly scandal is drawing will serve to energize those he feels are often forgotten by a city leadership that instead looks after their own interests — whether it’s tax breaks for Port Covington, for example, a big package to try to lure Amazon, or helping Johns Hopkins get approval for its own armed police force.
“They’ll testify for Hopkins to get their guns, they’ll sit on boards and it’s very lucrative for them,” he said. “The everyday people have to scream and shout for anything, but the power people get their money for Port Covington.”
Perhaps, he said, the current anger will prompt Baltimoreans to “get off our butts.
“Maybe this will remind people there’s still so much to pay attention to,” Moore said.
Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the coalition of religious and community groups, says what the city needs now is a unifying vision for addressing long-standing problems — the relentless violence, the woes that beset its schools, housing, neighborhoods and well-being.
“Whatever we come up with together, it outlasts whoever is in public office, however long they stay,” said the Rev. Cristina Paglinauan, an associate rector at the Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore and a BUILD leader.
Paglinauan said BUILD leaders held an “emergency phone call” as the Healthy Holly scandal grew to discuss what they could do. They’ve started reaching out to other civic and corporate leaders, and are asking residents and community groups to call or email to join on-going discussions about the future of the city.
Rachel Brooks, a BUILD organizer, said developing a citywide strategy is a way to “move forward, not to downplay the crisis we’re in at all,” and address the collective “grief” she has sensed in Baltimore even before the current scandal.
“We grieve of what this beautiful city can be and once was,” Brooks said. “But I think there’s also a lot of good things that are happening in this city.”
A similar optimism is what developer Toby Bozzuto says keeps him focused on his projects in the city. From getting financing and approval to construction to leasing and management, they can take years and span more than one mayor’s term.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult time,” the president and CEO of The Bozzuto Group said of the mayoral turmoil. “When there is disruption in day to day politics, or with the police commissioner search, we take the long view.
“We’re going to continue to do our thing,” said Bozzuto, whose company developed the luxury Anthem House apartments in Locust Point. It expects to open another residential building, Liberty Harbor East, with a new Whole Foods on the first floor, later this year.
He plans to prove wrong the friends who wonder why he builds here and tell him, “The city is broken.” He acknowledges they have much to point to — from the city’s still incomplete recovery from the 2015 riots after Freddie Gray died in police custody to the potential loss of the Preakness.
“You build,” he said, “for the city you want.”