Scandal, like cigarette smoke, brings back memories.
For as a long as we can remember, it has been a feature of Maryland politics.
Our own experience with it began in 1965, when we were about 17 years old. We wanted to know how politics worked. What better way than to get into it… get our hands dirty?
So, we volunteered as unpaid labour in a political campaign for Anne Arundel County’s chief executive.
We knew nothing of his ideology or his record, but he seemed like a likable sort. He had the rare ability to cry on cue, which it was said, endeared him to sentimental voters.
So we put up posters and distributed leaflets and the other things that the lowest rungs of political drudges do.
But as election day approached, the campaign grew more intense. Finally, we were given cash — a few hundred dollars in small bills.
‘What’s this for,’ we asked.
‘It’s “walking around money,’’ we were told.
‘What should I do with it?’
‘Go down Pinckney Street [a poor, predominantly Black area of Annapolis]. Ask people who they’re voting for. If they say they’re voting for Joe Alton, you give ’em a couple bucks for cab fare. Helps get out the vote.’
We did not know for sure. But we guessed that this was on the border of illegality. Maybe on the far side.
No matter. It was the way the political world worked in Maryland. And Joe Alton, who later served seven months in Allenwood Federal Prison for conspiracy to commit extortion, was a good door into it.
But now, it is Baltimore’s mayor who must be wondering about the dress code at Allenwood. Here’s The Baltimore Sun:
‘Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh [engulfed by a scandal over hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for her self-published Healthy Holly children’s books] announced Monday that she will take an indefinite leave of absence because of her health. […]
‘“With the mayor’s health deteriorating, she feels as though she is unable to fulfil her obligations as mayor of Baltimore city,” the statement read in part. “To that end, Mayor Pugh will be taking an indefinite leave of absence to recuperate from this serious illness.”’
She seemed like such a nice lady. When we met her a year ago, she held herself erect and gave a coherent, if uninspired, speech about something-or-other.
She had come into our neighbourhood. Since our business is one of the biggest employers and leading taxpayers in the inner-city area, Mrs Bonner thought the mayor might be interested in what we do.
But when our better half began to explain the business, Her Honour interrupted:
‘Very nice earrings,’ said she.
Ms Pugh was not interested in business. But she was interested in money. She is alleged to have accepted an extraordinary amount of money for a very ordinary book…$500,000, an unheard-of sum for a children’s story. It looked for all the world like a bribe.
But Baltimore has a long and venerable tradition of corruption…and incompetence. Her predecessor was also a black woman, Stephanie Rawlings Blake.
She was in charge when Freddie Gray was found to be unresponsive in the back of a police van and Baltimore exploded in riots. Our daughter saw the mob coming down the street. She rushed inside and bolted the door.
‘Racism,’ they yelled. But the mayor was black, the city council was black, the police chief was black, and half the policemen involved in the incident were also black. No matter; they smashed shop windows and ran off with clothes, jewellery, and appliances.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said he called Ms Rawlings-Blake three times, with no return call. Finally, she got in touch and Hogan sent the National Guard to restore order.
Meanwhile, the mayor explained that she had waited to bring things under control because ‘we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.’ That remark did not go down well.
Most people did not think rioters and looters should be given any space, at all. Things got worse. The police stopped enforcing the law. And more businesses left the city.
Like Ms Pugh, Ms Rawlings-Blake put a high value on her appearance. In 2014, Vanity Fair put her on the list of the nation’s 10 Best-Dressed Mayors.
All we remember about Ms Rawlings-Blake’s predecessor was that she was a snappy dresser, too.
Sheila Dixon first made a name for herself in Baltimore with an essential element of her wardrobe. In 1991, perhaps taking her cue from Nikita Khrushchev, who gave a similar performance at the United Nations in 1960, she took off her shoe, waved it in the air, and announced to the startled white city councilmen:
‘You’ve been running things for the last 20 years. Now the shoe is on the other foot.’
We don’t know where she got the 20-year figure. Whites ran the city forever… until the black Rhodes Scholar, Kurt Schmoke, took over in 1987.
Sartorial desire figured in Ms Dixon’s fall as it did in her rise. On January 9, 2009, Dixon was indicted by a Baltimore grand jury on 12 counts: four counts of perjury, two counts of misconduct, three counts of theft, and three counts of fraudulent misappropriations.
Fur coats, gift cards designed for the poor, crony city contracts with her boyfriend’s company — all figured in the charges.
Three mayors. Three failures. Which just goes to show how much Baltimore has changed.
Mayors might have always been corrupt; but at least the city ran fairly well. Nancy Pelosi’s father, for example, was rumoured to be in tight with the mob. Her father, Tommy D’Alesandro Jr, was mayor. And her brother, Tommy D’Alesandro III also filled the job.
Another brother, FR D’Alesandro, was indicted for rape. And for perjury. Both charges were dismissed when the witnesses went missing at key intervals. And Tommy III remained a force to be reckoned with. When we opened our first office in Baltimore, down near Little Italy, Tommy came to celebrate with us.
The D’Alesandro Machine was believed to be working with the Gambino family in New York. But who cared? They handed out ‘walking around money,’ too… a lot more than Joe Alton. And they knew how to bust heads when they had to.
The city was generally well-run. Prosperous. Safe.
But that was 30 years ago. Welfare, fake money, bad management, the decline of manufacturing — all have taken their toll. Now, even a Lee Kuan Yew couldn’t save the city.