Somewhere in her shame and humiliation, Catherine Pugh begins to pack her bags. She leaves for federal prison this week, leaving behind a city that once elected her mayor and still misses a leader with her political experience and skills.
But greed got in Pugh’s way. She leaves this Friday, June 26, for prison in Alabama because she hustled several hundred thousand bucks out of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books and then committed perjury in an attempt to hide her crimes.
It’s galling and surreal that Baltimore’s highest elected official might attempt to pull off such acts, and do them in the name of helping children. But adding to the outrage is the sense that Pugh isn’t alone. It’s three mayors, in succession, who have left office in disgrace, having let down all those who voted them in.
Sheila Dixon departed under criminal indictment. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stepped aside under the general impression she’d been AWOL, at least from public view, during the Freddie Gray troubles of 2015.
Pugh’s crimes turned City Hall over to the next mayor-in-waiting, Bernard C. ”Jack” Young, whose performance in office was deemed so lacking that he finished fifth in the last mayoral election.
And all of this happens as the city of Baltimore’s troubles seem to deepen.
Pugh’s not the only one leaving town. The city’s population, which swelled to nearly a million at mid-20th century, now barely tops 600,000.
And it’s the middle class that’s leaving. They go, and so goes the tax base.
In private conversations and in public, Pugh always stressed the need for City Hall to focus on middle-class families as well as the poor, and for finding coalitions that crossed lines of class and race.
We’re now waiting now to see how the presumed incoming mayor, Brandon M. Scott, will approach such issues.
Meanwhile, around the country, there’s a profound sense of concern and anxiety about the role of police, specifically, but not totally, on white cops’ brutality toward minorities.
Where do police draw the line on the use of force? Where does the public draw the line on what we accept, and what we demand?
It’s a tough, shifting line, and, in Baltimore the police have been trying to figure it out over the past five years since the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
What’s clear is that their role is still quite unclear. In the city’s angriest streets, the bodies continue to pile up. Even in this time of quarantine, when people are supposed to stay at home, the shootings and killings — much over drug turf — continue to rage as before.
While this goes on, there are neighborhoods complaining they can’t get their refuse collected. Some sanitation workers, facing the same coronavirus worries as everyone else, have absented themselves from work.
You worry about basic services like police protection and trash collection, and it’s no wonder the population keeps falling.
And now Baltimore loses one more. It’s Catherine Pugh this time, going away for three years.
She might have been a pretty good mayor. But greed got in the way.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).