Catherine Pugh’s demise as mayor of Baltimore took less than two months. That’s astounding. That may be a Maryland record for revelation-to-resignation, rivaled only by the relatively snappy downfall of Spiro T. Agnew, vice president of the United States, former Maryland governor, former Baltimore County executive and longtime crook.
On Oct. 10, 1973, Agnew resigned as Richard M. Nixon’s vice president after coming to Baltimore, his old hometown, to enter a no-contest plea to tax evasion, followed by a nice dinner in Little Italy. Though federal agents had been sniffing out Agnew’s involvement in a long-standing kickback scheme for several months, the public only learned that he was the target of the investigation in early August, when the story broke in the press.
The feds had the goods on Spiro T. Just nine weeks later, he resigned the vice presidency in disgrace and left for California.
Catherine Pugh’s revelation-to-resignation interval was even shorter, less than eight weeks, and ’tweren’t the feds who gave her the bum’s rush. ’Twas the City Council who showed her the door, and right quick. This is an important part of the story.
It was only March 13 that we learned — from a report in The Baltimore Sun — about Pugh’s questionable deal to sell thousands of copies of her mediocre, self-published children’s books — some $500,000 worth — to the University of Maryland Medical System while she sat on its board. But that was just the start of her downfall. A cascade of “Healthy Holly” revelations followed, making it clear that Pugh had been involved in more deals than she had acknowledged during that David Lynch-weird press conference on March 28, the one with the bibs.
Within hours, Pugh became the incredible shrinking mayor, on her way to cheap infamy. It was a remarkable collapse, and the speed is noteworthy. It could be an indication that things are about to change in this city at long last. I’m not sure if we’ve hit rock bottom, but let’s hope this is it, and that Pugh’s quick exit portends something positive.
Prior to the “Healthy Holly” revelations, Pugh was, if not riding high, certainly in a prime position to win re-election in 2020. She had plenty of money in her campaign fund, and she had just recovered nicely from a potential debacle in the hiring of a police commissioner, quickly getting Michael Harrison to come here from New Orleans after the other guy, what’s-his-name, decided to stay in Fort Worth. Pugh went from floundering to a flourish in less than 24 hours.
But, to butcher an old Sinatra tune, she was ridin’ high in February, shot down in May. She has resigned as mayor.
The unusually fast and broad condemnation of Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” deal-making — the part that came from city dwellers and not just the usual crowd of city haters on talk radio — reveals evidence of civic impatience. And Baltimore badly needs impatience. The City Council, with eight new and promising members elected in 2016, asserted itself clearly and early, calling for Pugh’s resignation. The city’s delegation to Annapolis followed. Then the Greater Baltimore Committee asked Pugh to step down.
She had no vocal defenders, only a few people who seemed to think Pugh deserved the benefit of the doubt because she wrote the “Healthy Holly” books to get an important message to kids about nutrition and exercise.
But Pugh was not honest about the extent of her deals on the books, so when the total sum hit $800,000 or more, when Sun reporters could not account for the thousands of books these deals represented, when we learned she had arranged book purchases with companies that did business with the city, the reaction was something like revulsion.
Pugh’s self-dealing looked bad on its face; we didn’t need to wait for formal charges to be brought against her. We didn’t need to read an indictment to recognize a conflict of interest and profiteering off an entrusted position.
And Baltimoreans were quick to dismiss Pugh because we are sick of corruption or, at the least, dysfunction, chaos, distraction and embarrassment.
We probably expect too much from mayors, but, at the minimum, we need an honest, stable and conscientious leader in City Hall, not someone scheming up lucrative side deals.
I’ve heard people say — The Sun had a headline to this effect — that Baltimore has had a long history of corruption. That’s a stretch of the facts. Of the mayors who ran the show since I came to town — William Donald Schaefer, Clarence H. “Du” Burns, Kurt L. Schmoke, Martin O’Malley, Sheila Dixon, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Pugh — only Dixon and Pugh had accusations of corruption thrown at them. (Hey, two out of seven ain’t bad.) During each administration, some city employees committed crimes — Schaefer’s deputy director of public works took part in a bid-rigging scheme with demolition contractors — and we had a City Council president who took bribes, but he did it in such an obvious way — under a table, in an Italian restaurant, while the FBI listened — it seemed more like political suicide than greed. All those other mayors I mentioned: Never indicted, and maybe never even audited. (If you want corruption, Baltimore County is where to look, from Agnew to Dale Anderson and Sam Green to Tommy Bromwell and Dallas Dance.)
After the Dixon trials and resignation, after the Freddie Gray spring that brought a premature end to Rawlings-Blake’s political career, with the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and the tax troubles of a police commissioner — midst all the other standing problems across the city — the last thing Baltimore needed was another self-dealing mayor, another monumental distraction, another round of late-night jokes.
Props to the City Council for taking fast action. Respect to my fellow citizens who show fierce impatience with weak or corrupt leadership — and I hope they continue to be impatient with everything else: crime reduction, public schools improvement, redevelopment in neglected neighborhoods. Thanks to my colleagues in the local press. And thanks to Catherine Pugh for making the right decision, and right soon, for her city.