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Maryland State Senator Catherine Pugh in 2011 when she first ran for mayor of Baltimore.
Maryland State Senator Catherine Pugh in 2011 when she first ran for mayor of Baltimore. (Joe Soriero / Baltimore Sun)

Watching Baltimore’s mayoral candidates struggle mightily to distinguish themselves, I find myself thinking of an old saying: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” In this case, all 30-plus people want to hold political office, but a good many of them insist that “I am not a politician.”

What does that say about our society when the word “politics” connotes not the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s notions about the affairs of cities, but something sordid and odious. Its practitioners are automatically suspect.

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When I have recently asked people what comes to mind when they hear the word “politics,” whether they are old or young, the response almost always includes words like “arguments,” “lying,” “rich folks” and “nothing to do with me.”

Who can fault folks who have felt the impact of rigged elections, legislative defeats, backroom deals and abrupt resignations? Or college students bombarded across multiple media platforms with people yelling at each other in the halls of Congress or doing perp walks here in Baltimore?

No one wants to be saddled with the label politician,“if you are a resident of a community that has been the caboose of every political decision," says C. W. Harris, a wise man of Sandtown-Winchester," and we have been overlooked by a party that is supposed to serve us.”

So candidates who are political outsiders but community insiders demonstrate they are not cut from the old mold. “I am not a politician,” they utter as mantra and promise.

I am sure that former Mayor Catherine Pugh and, before her, Sheila Dixon, at some point in their rise through the ranks before their falls from grace, convinced the tenants’ groups and young people’s advocates, the civil rights leaders and neighborhood associations, the community organizers and the P.T.A.’s, that they were not politicians. Whatever they were not, they eventually — some might say inevitably — became.

Ms. Pugh, the most recently elected mayor and a former state senator, pleaded guilty in federal court two months ago to four criminal counts involving the sale of her Healthy Holly children’s books. Among other misdeeds, she sold the same books over and over again to the organizations and individuals who stood to gain financially as she advanced politically. What she admitted to in detail most painful for once-believing voters was conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and tax evasion. She awaits sentencing this month, and we the people await some new non-politician to restore what’s left of our belief in the system that owes its existence to the good, bad and very ugly of politics.

More than a decade ago, Ms. Dixon was tried for embezzlement for taking gift cards intended for the poor. Diehard Dixon supporters emphasize her acquittal on felony charges and insist she was “only” found guilty of “fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary” — in this case, a person entrusted to act in the public’s interest. Ten years ago, she resigned from office after working out a deal with prosecutors. She was sentenced to four years of probation and ordered to make restitution.

On one hand the fall of these two women who once were not politicians confirms suspicions that power corrupts when individuals (inevitably?) yield to its temptations. On the other hand, it confirms another truth in politics: The people who call the shots — white, wealthy, powerful, usually male — get away, while the little folks, the Pughs and the Dixons, black cogs in a massive wheel, get caught. Their bad deeds, seen in this context, are minimized.

We see what President Donald Trump gets away with: pure, unadulterated perfidy. But still the so-called Christians of the right and those senators who have sworn to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office” make excuses, turn a blind eye and move on in the name of … politics.

Despite the stench, this is the system we have. So we keep looking for the outsider with the vision and the gumption to buck the system. Mr. Harris, who heads Intersection of Change, a community organization in West Baltimore, chuckles with me at the irony: “Once they get in, they find you can’t be an island on your own. You’re going to be a politician.”

I have not given up.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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