The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Weary of scandal and violence, Baltimore’s residents ask: ‘Why do we stay?’

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) addresses a gathering during the 2018 annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston. She has taken a leave of absence amid the scandal over her “Healthy Holly” book deal. (Charles Krupa/AP)

BALTIMORE — As spring loomed a few weeks ago, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh proposed a property tax cut, announced plans to demolish more than 1,000 vacant buildings and presided at the swearing in of the city’s new police commissioner.

For all of three days, Baltimoreans could be forgiven for feeling a momentary sense of encouragement, a sentiment often alien to a city that in recent years has careened from one crisis to another.

It did not last.

Baltimore soon discovered a new shorthand for dysfunction — “Healthy Holly” — one that led the mayor to vacate her job, at least temporarily.

The upheaval over Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” series of children’s books is the latest to shake a city that in the past four years has endured a riot, a police corruption scandal and unceasing violence that has made it among the country’s deadliest.

The city’s travails have inspired widespread derision and ridicule, some of it registered on Amazon, where one “Healthy Holly” reviewer posted: “Exercising is fun, but money laundering is funner.”

Theresa Vargas: Baltimore deserves better than a one-star mayor

As the tempest entered its third week, across the city, a palpable sense of disgust fueled conversations that have grown all too familiar.

“It’s just exhausting to live here,” said Patrick Sheridan, 44, a lawyer who is married and has two young children, as he paused the other day in Mount Vernon Square, a venerable neighborhood just north of downtown.

“I used to tell people that if we could elect good people, we could turn things around,” he said. “I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m often asking, ‘Why are we here? Why do we stay?’ ”

Investigators are probing deals that Pugh, a Democrat, negotiated to earn more than $500,000 selling “Healthy Holly” books to entities such as the health-care company Kaiser Permanente, which was awarded city contracts, and the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat.

After initially dismissing scrutiny of her UMMS deal as a “witch hunt,” Pugh, who was elected in 2016, described the arrangement as a “regrettable mistake,” then took a “temporary” leave of absence that her office said was necessitated by illness.

Last week, the mayor was said to have retreated to her house, where a police officer posted outside discouraged unwanted visitors from knocking.

“I have no idea where it’s going. I’m just praying for her,” Joan Pratt, Baltimore’s comptroller and a Pugh friend and co-owner of a consignment store, said when asked whether the mayor would return to work.

In Pugh’s absence, City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young (D) became acting mayor and sought to assure residents that “the city is stable and moving forward.”

Yet, a few miles north of City Hall, at Mondawmin Mall, where the rioting began four years ago, Shirley Parker, a retired health-care counselor, said nothing anyone could say would reassure her.

The collective weight of the crises that have staggered Baltimore, Parker said, “makes me want to escape” and compounds her distrust of city leaders, no matter how often they tout new downtown towers as evidence of progress.

“It makes me want to stay in the house,” Parker said. “It makes me not want to vote. It makes me feel like you can’t trust the politicians. You just don’t know who’s going to do right.”

Along with taking pride in the their universities, hospitals, art museums and sports teams, Baltimoreans have long celebrated the city’s idiosyncratic character, which is in full display in its network of tightknit neighborhoods.

Yet Baltimore is often defined by its long-standing troubles, whether the evidence is a population that has shrunk by 40,000 since 2000; public school enrollment that last year reached its lowest level in a decade; or a homicide count that has exceeded 300 in each of the past four years.

Her 7-year-old big sister was killed by gunfire. Then she, too, was shot.

More than anything else, violence is the centerpiece of Baltimore life, and its toll instills a daily sense of wariness that permeates the city.

Just after he was sworn in on March 12, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison found that his first task was to ask the public to help solve a triple shooting in which a teenager died.

“People don’t want to invest here, they don’t want to visit here, and they don’t want to work here,” said Julius Henson, 70, a political strategist and lifelong Baltimorean. “It affects commerce, city services, the school system, everything. It’s a sinkhole. It could take a generation to revive Baltimore.”

Pugh’s scandal has only exacerbated a perception of instability that shrouds city leaders as they lobby the state government in Annapolis on a host of funding needs. In recent days, Pugh and several former mayors, including Martin O’Malley, have gone to the state capitol to plead for help keeping the Preakness Stakes thoroughbred race in Baltimore.

“It has become increasingly difficult to make the case that we’re the most effective stewards at the city level of the resources coming in,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), whose district includes downtown. “There’s a level of fatigue about Baltimore that is settling into a sense that dysfunction is inevitable.”

'We don't give up'

Two days after Pugh went on leave, city leaders were in the audience as retired Baltimore Colt Glenn Doughty celebrated the renovation of the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center, a recreation complex on a bedraggled corridor just south of the center of the 2015 riot.

“Is this bodacious-ly awesome or what?” said Doughty, trying to energize a small crowd that included Young, the acting mayor. Young’s council colleagues elected him city council president in 2010 when a scandal forced then-Mayor Sheila Dixon to resign and then-Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became mayor.

A veteran of two decades of Baltimore politics, Young, 64, has endured his own share of scrutiny over the years, once inviting reporters to tour his house to prove that he lived at the address he reported on disclosure reports.

“Do you want to see my damn underwear?” he demanded.

At Shake and Bake, television news crews followed the acting mayor on a tour and were ready to record his bowling — that is, until he demurred.

“No, I’m not doing it,” Young said, returning his ball to the rack and ceding to Pratt, the comptroller, who, in high heels, rolled her ball into the gutter.

Young was less bashful answering questions about the state of Baltimore.

“This city is in great hands,” he said. “People are knocking our doors down to invest in Baltimore.”

A few hours later, his security detail would whisk him off to a southwest Baltimore basketball court, where two teenagers had been shot.

Raymond Kelly, a community organizer in the audience at Shake and Bake, said the scandal involving Pugh is unsurprising in a city that he said operates on “backroom agreements.”

From his perspective, Baltimore has been in crisis since the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, a period when the annual homicide count routinely exceeded 300 before declining in the 2000s.

More recently, eight members of the police department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force were convicted of crimes including fraudulent overtime claims and pilfering hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, guns and drugs.

A consent decree into which the city entered in 2017 required policing reforms, an effort stymied by instability at the highest levels of the police department. Since Pugh took office, four commissioners have led the force, one of whom resigned and was sentenced to 10 months in prison for failing to file federal taxes.

Yet Kelly said he still finds inspiration, whether in helping to monitor the implementation of the police reforms or celebrating the reopening of Shake and Bake. “We don’t give up on the city,” he said. “That’s how we persevere.”

But others worry that outsiders — young professionals looking for a place to settle, corporations shopping for new headquarters — will be deterred by the city’s seemingly endless churn of tumult.

“How does the city move forward and gain momentum?” said Anirban Basu, chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission. “The answer is, it doesn’t. At some point, we’re going to have another economic downturn, and businesses with national operations are going to ask where they should cut first.

“My guess is that Baltimore will be first.”

'Decades of neglect'

On a crisp afternoon last week, Brenda Saunders, 90, stood in the doorway of her rowhouse, where she has lived her entire life, a half-block from the police department’s Western District headquarters.

“We’ve always had our disruptions,” Saunders, a retired social worker, said as she recalled a blur of mayors, the crack epidemic, and the riots of 1968 and 2015.

She said she despised O’Malley’s tenure, blaming the public’s animosity toward the police on his administration’s zero-tolerance policies. Yes, she voted for Pugh, but only because she was the “lesser of two evils” when compared with Dixon, whose misdeeds she said were impossible to ignore.

Saunders’s eyes narrow at talk of Dixon’s mulling a comeback campaign, chatter that the former mayor did little to dispel in recent days.

“She had her chance,” Saunders said. “We need fresh thinking. Younger people.”

In 2016, Pugh, then a state senator, became mayor by selling herself to a cross-section of white and black voters as a competent leader whose network of allies in Annapolis and in the business community would be an asset to the city.

Three years later, her reelection campaign has raised $1 million, an amount that demonstrated her muscle as an incumbent, even as the city’s crime rate made her potentially vulnerable in next year’s Democratic primary.

Before “Healthy Holly,” voters would have said “Catherine Pugh may have problems with violence, but she’s ethical and doesn’t have a taint,” said Clarence Mitchell IV, a radio host and former state senator.

A month ago, he was expecting Pugh to win a second term. By last week, he was calling on her to resign.

Doug Miles, a leader of a nonpartisan coalition of congregations and not-for-profit groups in Baltimore, waved off the idea that any single politician can mend neighborhoods suffering from “decades of neglect.”

The city’s woes, he said, are an “opportunity” for a coalition of civic, corporate and religious leaders to set a vision for Baltimore, the kind of detailed planning that decades ago led to the creation of the Inner Harbor.

“We’re always looking for Superman,” Miles said. “We need to be our own Superman.”

Read more:

Block by block, Baltimore is demolishing its blight — and pieces of its past

‘Did you hear that?’ Amid Baltimore’s killings, a faint cry in a locked car

‘I don’t know if people understand what’s happening in Baltimore’

In Baltimore, the joy and relief of making it through high school alive