Baltimore becomes a national punch line again

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BALTIMORE – Once again, this city becomes part of a national punch line for municipal humiliation. This time it’s another mayor, Catherine Pugh, banished from City Hall, now pleading guilty to criminal abuse of children’s literature.

We’ll add this to Baltimore’s list of national embarrassments: President Trump sneeringly calling the city rat-infested; a former mayor, Sheila Dixon, forced from office for pilfering holiday gift cards intended for poor children; the nationally-televised Freddie Gray riots; the city’s homicides passing 300 for a fifth straight year.

And now the latest embarrassment, to which the local cynics have already attached a wry punch line: Healthy Holly Goes to Prison.

The “Healthy Holly” children’s books were Pugh’s ticket to infamy. Last week in federal court, she pleaded guilty to four counts of conspiracy and tax evasion, in a case that first reached public awareness last March in The Sun newspaper.

The guilty pleas were part of an original 11-count indictment that Pugh’s book deal was a cheap racket – well, not so cheap, since the mayor made off with nearly $800,000 for thousands of books, many that were never even delivered.

Sentencing is set for February. U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur indicated the 69-year old Pugh could receive five years in prison.

This raises two questions. First, if Pugh is guilty of grabbing so much money for so little value, what about the institutional leaders who handed over the money, knowing it was wildly out of proportion, because they imagined it would grease the wheels for doing further business with the city?

In other words, are there others who should be quaking at the possibility of more federal indictments – which Pugh might be discussing with federal authorities right now.

And, a second question: Is Pugh’s shame symptomatic of a dysfunctional city, out of control from its highest political levels down to its nervous street corners?

It certainly feeds into the current popular narrative. There are those in Baltimore’s surrounding counties who say they haven’t been downtown since the Freddie Gray riots nearly five years ago. The common conception, at least among these worriers, is that the city is dangerous no matter where you venture into it.

As Dante once said of another hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Except it’s not true of Baltimore.

Catherine Pugh’s fall from grace is symptomatic of a flawed human being, not a city with plenty of flaws of its own

Pugh spent a lot of years in public service, and did enough good that she was repeatedly elected to high office. But, somewhere along the way, like many powerful people, she picked up a sense of personal entitlement.

Such things happen in communities everywhere. The big shots hold municipal séances, with all hands under the table, where money is secretly exchanged.

But don’t mark Pugh’s defeat as uniquely symptomatic of Baltimore’s wider failures. We are more than one city. There’s the city of entrenched poverty and hopelessness, where drug dealers slaughter each other over turf. It’s an awful story, but it’s only part of the story.

There’s the larger city, constantly re-inventing itself, where new homes and businesses are being born. Have those nervous suburbanites seen the changes around Patterson Park, once written off as dangerous and now blossoming with young professionals?

Have they felt the energy in half a dozen big waterfront neighborhoods? Have they seen the massive construction equipment across all parts of town? Have they talked with builders and real estate people who see potential everywhere in the city?

Those are the stories that have been eclipsed by the ongoing homicides, and the ongoing emotional fallout from Freddie Gray, and the humiliation of two mayors.

And it’s something to consider for all those awaiting Sheila Dixon’s decision on another run for mayor. She’s thinking about it, you know.

Just what Baltimore needs, another punch line for the whole country to see.