To those who shake their heads and say Baltimoreans foolishly keep electing crooks to public office, let me politely offer a little perspective: You’re wrong. I hate to brighten your unrelentingly dim view of Mob Town, but there is not a rich history of the populi knowingly sending scoundrels to City Hall.
In fact, the gallery of unindicted mayors and city officials is extensive and boring. Baltimore has many problems, but they have more to do with complacency and incompetence than political corruption.
So, with regard to the hot mess involving our Mayor-on-Leave, I must defend my fellow citizens: What is evident now was not evident then, and Baltimore Democrats elected Catherine Pugh in 2016 because the immediate alternative appeared to be Sheila Dixon, a former mayor forced to leave office six years earlier.
Pugh won the mayor’s job in the first municipal election after the Freddie Gray spring. More than 135,000 Baltimore Democrats cast ballots in the primary that April, representing a 45 percent voter turnout.
Pugh wasn’t the greatest candidate for mayor; her campaign was metza metz bordering on meh. She did not generate a lot of excitement. But Baltimoreans were not looking for that. They were looking for competence, honesty and experience, and Pugh had a decent resume. She had a record of public service as a member of City Council and the Maryland Senate. She had made a mark with her presence on the streets of West Baltimore after the fires and vandalism of April 27, 2015. She also had been involved in good civic undertakings — the Fish Out of Water art project, the revival of the Baltimore marathon, the establishment of the Baltimore Design School — and she had owned a couple of businesses.
But a lot of people voted for Pugh because she wasn’t Dixon. Even those who had considered Dixon a good mayor in her time (2007-2010) did not want to give her a second chance in that job, especially with the city in recovery from the Freddie Gray spring.
Though she had started to rebuild her political profile — it helped that a lot of Baltimoreans considered her offenses small potatoes in the big roasting pan of life — Dixon found that, once you break the public trust, it’s hard to gather all the pieces and glue it back together. She lost to Pugh by 2,408 votes.
Pugh went on to give a thoroughly mediocre inauguration speech but managed in her first two years in office to put some promising initiatives in place. Her uneven efforts at getting a new police commissioner to fix a damaged department ultimately resulted in what appears to be a good hire in Michael Harrison. Though the problems with violent crime and police recruitment remain prominent, Pugh has a campaign fund of close to $1 million, and, as of two weeks ago, she did not appear to have a serious challenger for re-election in 2020.
But look where we are today: The woman who was elected because she did not come with baggage turns out to have had a matching set of luggage you’d need five bellhops to carry.
What is evident now — Pugh’s lucrative “Healthy Holly” book deals with the University of Maryland Medical System while she sat on its board and while she was a state senator who could influence Maryland hospitals — was not evident in 2016. The revelations about Pugh’s self-dealing, and her lack of candor about the extent of the “Healthy Holly” deals, have destroyed whatever public confidence was left.
I hope she recovers from the illness that prompted her to take an indefinite leave. There are medicines for that. There is no remedy for trust broken on the scale we’re seeing in the Healthy Holly scandal. I don’t see how Pugh recovers from it.
All of this should serve as a loud, clear call-out to others who ran for office in the important election of 2016. I’m talking about those young, bright and energetic Baltimoreans who ran for City Council and whose primary victories constituted the biggest turnover in the council in years.
Together with the 34-year-old veteran councilman Brandon Scott — along with the many impressive men and women who did not win election to the council in 2016, or to state’s attorney in 2018 — they represent the potential for a cross-racial, cross-city coalition of political leaders, a kind of millennial vanguard.
Everywhere I go, I hear from people who are sick of the failures, sick of Baltimore’s second-class status, people who volunteer for causes, who see all around them the potential for a great city and have ideas to make it so. To some extent, it has always been thus — idealism smashed by the hard realities of a hard city — but even through this spell of horrible, there’s still hope, and it’s in the next generation of leaders, and their moment is here.