City Delegation Ponders the Battles Ahead as Pugh Takes Her Leave

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) in Annapolis recently. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

State legislators from Baltimore City reacted cautiously Monday night to the news that their mayor, Catherine E. Pugh (D), has decided to take “an indefinite leave of absence” from her post.

Pugh, a 69-year-old former state legislator, has been suffering from pneumonia in recent weeks, according to aides, and her statement said she needed the time away to focus on her health. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) will take over indefinitely as “ex officio mayor.”

Still, given the controversy swirling around her multiple six-figure, no-bid book deals — one with the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she long served; the other with Kaiser Permanente, a city health care contractor — it was impossible not to see Pugh’s decision to step away from her duties through a political lens.

Many members of the city delegation did not want to comment on the news, and some of those who did speak appeared eager to say as little as possible.

“What are you talking about?” asked one lawmaker, as he shuttled between meetings. “Please don’t grab me on this mayor thing.”

The city’s Senate delegation issued a statement acknowledging that the mayor’s decision to step away from her duties transcended her medical needs.

“We, as Baltimoreans, first and foremost, must hold our city’s officials to the highest standard,” read the statement, posted on Facebook.

“The next 48 hours will be undeniably challenging for our city,” the lawmakers said. “The delegation is committed to championing the city’s interests in the General Assembly.”

With the 2019 session down to its final hectic days and many big decisions still to be made, Del. Luke V. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) noted that this is a bad time for the city’s leadership team to be at less than full strength.

“It’s profoundly difficult for the city not to have its leader available to fight for the city in Annapolis,” he told Maryland Matters. “It’s profoundly difficult for the city’s reputation.”

Clippinger said legislative fights for the delegation over the final week include school construction funding, education funding, funding for more technology for the police force, and the future of Pimlico Race Course.

“It requires a full-court press,” he said.

Young announced early Tuesday morning that he plans to meet with members of the city’s legislative delegation in Annapolis Tuesday morning.

Some lawmakers focused primarily on the illness that led to the mayor’s hospitalization last week.

“I know that her health has not been well. I know that was visible from people who saw [her] press conference last week,” said Del. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore City). “We know there’s a lot of pressure and concern from constituents and people across the state, so I think she’s taking time to take care of herself.

“We await more feedback from her on what the future holds.”

While the news hit the political world hard, it was not totally unexpected.

“I was assuming that something like that would occur eventually, as a result of everything that’s occurred,” said Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City).

Pugh’s decision to take a leave of absence followed by just hours a Baltimore Sun report about an additional deal involving her self-published children’s book series, “Healthy Holly.”

The Sun reported that Kaiser Permanente, the giant health insurer that covers city government personnel, paid Pugh $114,000 for approximately 20,000 copies of her books.

A city spending panel on which Pugh sits awarded Kaiser a lucrative three-year contract in September 2017, about a year into her term, the paper reported.

The report followed closely on the heels of the disclosure, also by The Sun, that Pugh pocketed half a million dollars in royalties from the sale of 100,000 copies of her book from the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat until last month.

At her news conference last week, Pugh expressed regret about the UMMS deal, but she did not disclose her relationship with Kaiser.

That led Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) to call on her to resign Monday. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) urged the state prosecutor to pursue potential charges against her.

Opined The Baltimore Sun editorial page late Monday: “This latest revelation is so damaging because it proves that Ms. Pugh has been misleading the public about the extent of her business all along.”

“Not once has she acknowledged selling books to anyone other than the University of Maryland Medical System.”

Dan Sparaco, an attorney and former assistant deputy mayor of Baltimore, was similarly mystified by Pugh’s strategy to contain the controversy that imperils her hold on power.

“I think everyone assumed that when Catherine Pugh gave her press conference last week, that that was supposed to be her best statement of the truth,” said Sparaco, who started the Baltimore NOW Political Action Committee, which seeks political change in the city. “I don’t think anyone imagined that there was another $115,000 in transactions… on top of the first $500,000.

“That press conference last week was the time for her to come clean on all of these issues.”

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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