Catherine Pugh’s resignation as Baltimore mayor trades one kind of uncertainty for another. We are spared now the possibility that a leader whose moral and political capital was erased by the Healthy Holly scandal would attempt to return to power, but we are confronted with more profound questions about the direction of the city. The 2016 election in which she won office and a new crop of City Council members swept into City Hall carried with it the hope for a post-Freddie Gray reordering of Baltimore policy and priorities. That dream was looking overly optimistic before the public had heard of Ms. Pugh’s sketchy book deals, and now, with her resignation in disgrace, it has been shattered.
Here’s what needs to happen if we are to pick up the pieces.
First, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, whose title has changed from City Council president to ex-officio mayor to now just mayor, needs to restore a sense of calm and stability to Baltimore. He’s done as good a job at that as one possibly could under the ambiguous circumstances of Ms. Pugh's indefinite leave of absence in the weeks since her physical and political health took simultaneous declines. But now that he doesn’t need to worry about the possibility that she could return to office at any time, he can and should assert himself — to an extent. Mr. Young should make sure he has the staff around him that he will need to keep the city running smoothly and to make wise decisions about whatever crises may come up before the next mayor takes over.
But he was not elected mayor, and he has already made clear that he will not be auditioning for the job. (We hope he sticks to that; irrespective of his personal abilities, having someone in charge at this moment who isn’t driven by his own electoral prospects is good for the city.) Making sweeping changes in the city’s direction would be a mistake under these circumstances. A good model here is the approach Don Mohler took as Baltimore County executive after Kevin Kamenetz’s unexpected death last year. Kamenetz’s former chief of staff provided continuity but wasn't afraid to make decisions, even potentially controversial ones, when the occasion demanded it. Mr. Young doesn’t need to solve Baltimore’s problems in the next 20 months, but creating an atmosphere in which optimism is possible for the city again would be a major accomplishment.
Second, we need inspired candidates for mayor. We need people who can connect with the residents of every corner of the city, who can think big and who can recruit the best and brightest to City Hall. We need someone who can take criticism, who can admit to mistakes and learn from them, who can recognize the talents and contributions of others. We need someone with a bold vision and the management skills to turn it into a reality.
Third, we need the rest of the state to recognize that this scandal does not define us as a city. The swiftness and unanimity with which Baltimore’s political leaders, business community and ordinary residents have condemned Ms. Pugh’s actions and demanded her resignation should demonstrate that. Do not allow the bad behavior of one — aided and abetted, we should note, by the University of Maryland Medical System, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Kaiser Permanente and others — to feed cynicism about the entire city. Baltimore is still worthy of the care and assistance of its neighbors, whether that means the willingness of state lawmakers to provide the city schools with the aid they need to give Baltimore students an equal opportunity in life, or the willingness of suburbanites to go to an Orioles game or a downtown restaurant.
Finally, we need leaders whose honesty and ethics are utterly beyond reproach. We cannot afford even the slightest blemish.
Three years ago when we endorsed Ms. Pugh for mayor, we praised her ability to bring people together around common goals, her credibility as an experienced leader, her connections across racial and class lines and her focus on what was (and remains) an issue of utmost importance in Baltimore: the relationship between the police and the community. Those strengths manifested themselves to one degree or another during her time in office — for example, in her drive to get Baltimore’s police reform consent decree signed before the Trump administration took office or her multi-disciplinary Violence Reduction Initiative. But we also expressed reservations about some ethical clouds in her campaign related to fundraising and a scheme to bus voters to the polls. Little did we know that Ms. Pugh was already engaged in conduct that was far worse.
“We don't need a mayor who is guided solely by what she believes is legal, we need one who will do what is right,” we said at the time. That is more true now than ever.
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