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Zurawik: Mayor Pugh wanted to 'change the narrative' about Baltimore. Then she reinforced its worst elements.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh will take a leave of absence Monday, engulfed by a scandal over hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun video)

Mayor Catherine Pugh came into office calling on us “to change the narrative” and create a more positive image of Baltimore. But she herself has reinforced one of the most negative and destructive story lines and perceptions of all about the city through her actions.

Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” book deals with the University of Maryland Medical System, Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities have done more damage to Baltimore’s image than any media outlet or TV program that she has blamed for the city’s perception problems in recent years.

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The negative images of the city she was talking about were things like endless pictures of boarded-up rowhouses and night-time crime scenes. But both grow out of the narrative that Baltimore is a dysfunctional, corrupt city incapable of managing its affairs to the benefit of those who live there. For many, Pugh’s Healthy Holly” deals, which paid her almost $700,000, are proof positive of that claim.

If you think I am exaggerating, you should have heard the “Brett Hollander “Show” on WBAL Radio Monday after Pugh announced she was taking an indefinite leave within hours after The Sun broke the story about the Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities deals for “Healthy Holly” books and Gov. Larry Hogan calling for a criminal investigation of deals between UMMS Pugh, who only resigned from the system’s board on March 18. The reason given for the leave is that the mayor is trying to recover from pneumonia.

“We’ve been at just a horrendous period in the level of violence,” Hollander told viewers.

“We can’t seem to get out of our own way. There are all sorts of issues with government and, perhaps, corruption and obviously the ineffectiveness and Ineptness of this city government,” he continued.

“You knew last week there was just no way the mayor could lead and get the job done. We’re way past the point of no return on this. For the reputation of this town and where we are now, it’s ugly. It is ugly. … This is such a humiliating moment in time,” he concluded as he invited members of his audience to call in with their thoughts on Pugh.

Caller after caller agreed with the host. There was no shortage of calls for resignation.

When people talk about the negative Baltimore “narrative,” they’re often referring to portrayals in the national media, whether it’s “The Wire” or the recent New York Times cover story headlined “The Tragedy of Baltimore.” But here’s a reminder from a radio station whose audience skews suburban that there is also and likely greater threat in how the city is viewed in Towson and Bel Air and Westminster and Severna Park. That’s the antipathy that keeps people out of downtown restaurants and away from Orioles games.

There was a political component in the conversation at some points, with blame for this “humiliating moment” in Baltimore’s civic life being contextualized by what Hollander termed “almost 60 years of single-party control” of the city.

But this “humiliating moment” and “ugly” place that Baltimore finds itself in today comes in large part courtesy of Mayor Pugh and her “Healthy Holly” deals.

And blaming the media or telling citizens to change the narrative isn’t going to fool anyone about that.

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