The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baltimore deserves better than a one-star mayor

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh answers reporters’ questions on  Dec. 3, 2017.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh answers reporters’ questions on Dec. 3, 2017. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

For a glimpse at how people are feeling about Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, log on to Amazon and look at the customer reviews of her book “Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun.”

None mentions the quality of her writing.

The reviews focus instead on the quality of her leadership, and they are scathing.

Some are funny. Some are sharp-edged. All reflect how betrayed and disgusted people feel about the shady sales of her “Healthy Holly” books, which were supposedly written to enrich the lives of children but appear to have mostly enriched the mayor.

“Turns out ‘Holly’ is the nickname for Pugh’s bank account. It’s VERY healthy,” reads one review.

“Exercising is fun, but money laundering is funner,” reads another.

“Apparently Detroit politicians and Baltimore politicians have some things in common — sticky fingers, immense greed, and a total lack of ethics,” reads yet another.

People are justifiably outraged about what’s happening in Baltimore and that anger is spilling out everywhere. On social media. On city streets. And yes, even on an Amazon page that is hard to find because “Healthy” is missing a “y,” leaving the title to read “Health Holly” above a picture of the book and a bio of Pugh.

Still, more than a dozen people have found it and left reviews that are telling. Politicians are always wondering how they are doing, checking polls and counting crowds, and Pugh’s “customers” on that site have sent her a clear message: She is a one-star mayor. She is a disappointment.

‘No way’: Baltimore mayor’s deals raise eyebrows in the book world

To be fair, while most of the reviews gave her one star, two granted her a generous five stars — but in jest.

“I don’t understand these haters and their mean reviews,” reads one. “Healthy Holly was totally worth the $500,000.00 I paid for it. The fact that I run a major health care conglomerate has nothing to do with it, either!”

The Baltimore Sun, through dogged and diligent reporting, has revealed one eyebrow-raising fact after another about the series of books the mayor self-published. The paper has reported that Pugh received $500,000 for 100,000 copies of the books from the University of Maryland Medical System while she served on its board and while she sponsored dozens of bills affecting hospitals in Maryland.

The paper’s reporters also found that Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities paid the mayor $200,000 for copies of the books.

That’s $700,000 for children’s books sold in no-bid deals.

On Monday, the same day Gov. Larry Hogan (R) asked for an investigation by the state prosecutor, Pugh (D) announced she was taking an indefinite leave of absence, citing health reasons. On Tuesday, her lawyer told the Sun she was the subject of an investigation.

It is tempting to joke about the “Healthy Holly” scandal. The titles of the books alone beg for wordplays, and many clever ones have been made in recent weeks.

But if you have ever spent time in Baltimore — and not just the Inner Harbor, but in areas where children walk to school carrying grown-up worries — then you know why the city needs and deserves so much more than a one-star mayor.

A few years ago, I spent months going in and out of a West Baltimore high school that saw three students in as many months killed, one of them stabbed in the heart in a classroom. The story I wrote focused on a teenager who just wanted to graduate. He had a team of adults behind him, pushing him and propelling him, and yet, he also had so many forces pulling him back. On his prom night, as a photographer and I watched him pose for photos with his family, we sensed a sadness about him. He eventually told us that earlier that day he had learned a childhood friend had been shot and killed. On a day he should have only had to worry about his bow tie and dance moves, he was thinking about a teenager who wouldn’t get that same chance.

Coming of age in a city coming apart

Pugh’s book deals are concerning, but they are so much more than that when you also consider what is happening in the Baltimore that isn’t politics, the Baltimore that showed its stark divisions during the Freddie Gray protests in 2015 and that has seen at least 300 homicides a year since.

In recent months, these headlines have also run on the Baltimore Sun’s site:

“Baltimore just saw the worst spike of sleep-related infant deaths since 2009 — sparking review of program”

“Baltimore remains the least healthy place in Maryland, Montgomery the most in latest annual ranking”

“Thursday’s violence in Baltimore was extreme — but the number of shootings isn’t unprecedented”

On that Amazon page, at least one comment contrasted the scandal with the real-life struggles of city residents.

“Helping Holly maintain her health is not so fun,” read the title of the comment, followed by this: “The mayor should try working at one of Bmore’s health systems full time and taking home $500 a week, not $500,000. Not too easy to support a family on that as a single parent.”

Fifty-five people as of Wednesday, according to the site, found that review helpful.

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