David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned amid a corruption probe, was obsessed with the city’s image. But Baltimore’s battered brand isn’t its most urgent problem.
Nothing conjured in The Wire’s writers’ room could be a bigger indictment of Baltimore’s structural and institutional woes than the bizarre final news conference of Mayor Catherine Pugh on March 28, which ended with a visibly unwell Pugh, who was suffering from pneumonia, showing off a line of baby clothing inspired by the self-published children’s books that would be her political undoing. The books, which had titles like Healthy Holly: Exercise Is Fun!, lie at the center of a still-unfolding corruption probe: As a Baltimore Sun-led investigation revealed, Pugh had sold huge numbers of “Healthy Holly” books to the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat. Several other local entities—including the health insurer Kaiser Permanente, which was seeking a $48 million city contract at the time—also wrote big checks for bulk “Healthy Holly” purchases; in all, Pugh is believed to have collected about $800,000 for the books.
The mayor took a leave of absence after that disastrous conference, but her legal troubles only deepened; last week, FBI and IRS agents raided Pugh’s home and City Hall offices, and whatever local support remained seemed to evaporate. She resigned on Thursday.
If there’s a central theme to her 29-month mayoralty, it is the importance of storytelling. Pugh, whose varied resume of business pursuits before politics included running a marketing and public relations firm, came into office in December 2016 with a promise to “change the narrative” about the bruised city.
Happy New Year! Change the Narrative...Goodness Is On the Rise!— Mayor Catherine Pugh (@MayorPugh50) January 1, 2018
Often, changing the narrative meant pushing back against a hostile media that seemed determined to dwell on Baltimore’s dark side—stubborn violence, entrenched poverty, and particularly the unrest that followed the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and the policing scandals that have swirled in its wake. More than one critic noted the mayor’s tendency to blame news-gatherers for bad news, lending the Democratic mayor a certain Trumpian dimension. In the early days of the self-dealing scandal that unseated her, Pugh dismissed the probe as a “witch hunt.” Initially, the mayor insisted that she’d properly reported the hundreds of thousands of dollars she’d collected selling boxes of her books to the university’s hospital network. But then the story changed.
Pugh’s priorities in office reflected that abiding obsession with optics: She hired on a fleet of spendy marketing consultants and public relations staffers and planned to build a television studio inside her City Hall office. Appropriately, her most memorable leadership display involved powerful symbols and camera-friendly stagecraft: Early in her term, in August 2017, Pugh ordered city crews to dismantle and truck away a quartet of Confederate monuments overnight. It was a dramatic and effective demonstration of mayoral authority that succeeded in ending a long-simmering controversy.
No one denies she was handed a brutally difficult job. The problems with crime and violence that Pugh inherited are not new to Baltimore, which endured a string of deadly years in the 1980s and 1990s, when I moved to town. Many mayors before her were just as frustrated with the city’s battered image. Dubbed “Mayor Annoyed” by Richard Ben Cramer in a famous 1984 Esquire profile, Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s taste for marketing stunts and media grudges was unrivaled. And the marketing-unfriendly oeuvre of former Sun reporter David Simon, who created Homicide and The Wire, has tormented every occupant of City Hall since those TV shows first aired. But Pugh’s fatal fixation with the city’s public face is distinctive. Baltimore’s brand is hardly the municipal challenge that demands the most urgent mayoral attention, and her actions ended up wreaking more damage on it than any fictional story ever could.
In “The Tragedy of Baltimore,” a ruthless accounting of the city’s post–Freddie Gray descent into disorder by ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in March, Pugh makes only a brief appearance, arguing that the city’s crime numbers were improving. At that point, the Healthy Holly saga had yet to break, but the story’s unsparing portrait of deep-seated dysfunction was plenty damning without it. The piece inspired some discussion locally about whether the city’s storyline constituted a proper tragedy, in the Shakespearian sense, or was just an entirely predictable sequence of unfortunate events. Drained of investment and population and good ideas and ethical leadership, the city that MacGillis portrayed looked more like a broken machine, grinding its guts out.
One could argue that the character of the mayor, whose determination to spread the good news about Baltimore led her into an epic public-relations debacle, had some Macbethian qualities. But the fictional creation that sped her downfall, Healthy Holly, does not support the Shakespearian thesis. As critics have noted, the books themselves are terrible. And while Baltimoreans can usually be counted on to spin local misfortune into comedy gold, or at least compelling drama, this scandal has so far failed to inspire. Healthy Holly now appears in a Baltimore club song and some satirical art, but mostly the cartoon girl—created, Pugh said, to help address childhood obesity—just makes me sad. She makes me think about all the real kids who are struggling to grow up in this city that has some of the starkest racial health disparities in America, and all the real problems that aren’t getting fixed.
If she’s convicted, Pugh would hardly be the only local storyteller who exploited the city’s real-life problems for profit. Consider one local scandal that Healthy Holly knocked off the front page: In December, a suburban Maryland resident and his stepdaughter claimed that their mother had been stabbed to death by a panhandler when they stopped their car at an East Baltimore intersection late one rainy night. That inspired national headlines and an op-ed from a powerful Baltimore developer who wrote that “society has the right for citizens not to be murdered in their cars waiting on a light to change.” The story was a fiction—the man and his stepdaughter were arrested in Texas for murdering the woman themselves—and not even a particularly convincing one. But it “slipped right into the narrative that people both inside and outside the city have constructed to fit it into their sense of the world,” as Baltimore Beat editor Lisa Snowden-McCray wrote in the Washington Post.
The Baltimore narrative provided an even more effective fog bank for the officers of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, a “rogue unit” of detectives who spent years robbing people, selling stolen drugs, and planting fake evidence on suspects, betting that their crimes would be lost amid the city’s ambient criminality. The degree to which their corruption—and the broader behavior of a police department that has been under a Department of Justice consent decree since 2017—has contributed to the city’s violence spike and general disarray remains a hot topic locally; many wonder to what degree Baltimore’s leaders and law enforcers, like the fire-starting firemen of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, are themselves agents of lawlessness, not bulwarks against it. Others have pointed out that questions about the role of Baltimore’s business and nonprofit institutions in this corruption scandal should not end with the mayor’s resignation.
(This may be a good time to remember that Pugh’s pick for police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, is now serving time in federal prison for tax offenses. And that Pugh is the second Baltimore mayor in this decade to resign amid a corruption scandal.)
In her brief resignation statement, Pugh said, “I’m sorry for the harm that I caused to the image of the city of Baltimore.” To the end, it was the well-being of the brand that seemed to consume her, not the city itself. Baltimore’s beat-up image, of course, is not in a position to forgive the mayor for the damage she unleashed, and that doesn’t seem like the biggest problem now anyway. (Besides, it’ll be fine: It survived Spiro Agnew.) Hopefully Baltimore’s future mayors can resist the temptation to blame their challenges on a story that they can’t control anyway. Fix the city; the narrative will take care of itself.