Mayor Catherine Pugh emerged from her sick bed on March 28 to defend herself against allegations that she’d been playing fast and loose with the rules of political integrity.
Yes, she acknowledged, she’d served as a board member of the University of Maryland Medical System. And yes, the board quietly voted to give her half a million bucks for 100,000 copies of a series of “Healthy Holly” children’s books she’d written and self-published. And yes, there were questions about what a person such as herself, with so much political muscle, might do for UMMS in return for such money.
But that’s as far as the mayor would go.
This wasn’t about books, she said, or money. It was about Baltimore’s children and their health. She was concerned they weren’t getting enough exercise, and they weren’t eating properly. So she decided to play surrogate mom to all of them.
“It’s about teaching our children how to live,” the mayor said. “I look for ways to inspire our children.”
And she felt her book was the perfect guide for these elementary school kids, and therefore it was helpful to distribute such literature among them.
Well, the mayor’s right about Baltimore’s high number of needy kids – and that single fact should be our overriding, long-term concern while we sort out the potential conflicts involved in the money paid to Pugh, and all those “Healthy Holly” books that nobody can seem to find, and the house that Pugh bought with cash after she got the UMMS money.
Or as State Comptroller Peter Franchot is calling it, “a window into the shadowy, seamy side of politics.”
Some of us still remember the integrity issue – also involving children – that drove former Mayor Sheila Dixon from office.
On Thursday, Pugh emerged from her hospital bed, where she’s reportedly been fighting pneumonia, long enough to deliver an 18-minute monologue in a breathy, whispery voice. But then she said doctors had told her not to answer any questions, but to get back in bed.
So let’s think about all those kids while the mayor slowly regains enough strength to answer a few grown-up type questions.
In the city of Baltimore, lots of children really do need some adult help. I refer you to a 2017 report, conducted by the city health department, which offered some of the bleak numbers.
Nearly two-thirds of city children live in single-parent families.
Nearly 30 percent live below the poverty line.
In a category the health department listed as Hardship Index – a combination of housing, poverty, unemployment, substance dependency – 51 percent of the city’s children live in such shaky circumstances.
More than three-quarters of the city’s children arrive in kindergarten ready to learn reading. But by third grade, only 55 percent are proficient in reading.
The mayor’s right – there are serious problems with the way Baltimore’s children are being raised. But “Healthy Holly” books barely scratch the surface. And Catherine Pugh pocketing a half-million payoff and saying it’s for the kids makes Sheila Dixon’s trouble look small.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.