Baltimore Fishbowl’s Top 10 news stories of 2019

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Mayor Catherine Pugh displays a “Healthy Holly”-affiliated bib on March 28. Still via live stream from Charm TV/Facebook.

Baltimoreans would be forgiven for thinking the last year was really more like five or 10 years. All the turbulence and uncertainty from various scandals and seismic changes had many residents wondering, “What could possibly happen next?” Here’s a breakdown of some of the biggest stories from the last year.

1. After being swept up in “Healthy Holly” scandal, Catherine Pugh resigns
It all started back in March, with a story in The Sun. Luke Broadwater detailed how nine members serving on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts with the nonprofit medical organization. One was Mayor Catherine Pugh, who had UMMS buy her self-published children’s books on healthy living, “Healthy Holly,” to distribute to students in schools.

Over the next several weeks, more layers of the onion were peeled back, and Baltimoreans learned Pugh had other contracts — including some with companies that did business with the city — and that many of the books were either sitting in a warehouse or unaccounted for. Amid mounting questions about the scandal, Pugh took a leave of absence on April 1, saying she needed to step aside due to a bout with pneumonia. On May 2, she resigned, making her the second mayor in three to leave office under a cloud of scandal. Eleven federal charges and a guilty plea to four of them came in November.

For the city, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Former Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa pleaded guilty to tax evasion in March, the last member of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force was sentenced in May and former Del. Cheryl Glenn was charged with bribery and wire fraud in December, days after she abruptly resigned.

2. Rep. Elijah Cummings, civil rights leader and Baltimore advocate, dies
For many Americans, Rep. Elijah Cumming, who died in October, was the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform with the booming voice and a knack for getting in President Trump’s business. But to Baltimoreans, he was so much more, a constant presence over the years and a dependable voice. They remember him speaking at the funeral of Freddie Gray and, in a nod to large media presence, wondering, “Did anybody recognize Freddie when he was alive? Did you see him?” And they remember him standing out on the corner of Penn and North, bullhorn in hand, the night after the unrest, pleading with people to go home.

As much as anything, they remember the life story he often shared: a son of sharecroppers who had rocks thrown at him when he tried to integrate a pool in Riverside, and who overcame feeling like a “caged bird” as a student to go on to finish law school and lead a life of public service.

Photo by J.M. Giordano.

3. Shortly after Bernard C. “Jack” Young takes over, ransomware hits Baltimore
With the city already in turmoil from Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” scandal, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a long-time presence on the city council, officially became mayor on May 2 after serving in an ex officio capacity. Not even a week later, hackers unleashed RobbinHood ransomware on municipal networks, locking workers out of their emails and crippling online functions such as paying for water online.

The hackers demanded 13 bitcoins to unlock everything. Young refused, deciding instead to work with federal authorities and IT contractors to extract what they could and bolster the city’s online security, something that arguably needed to happen anyway.

The effects of the ransomware attack were felt for months. By June 26, roughly 95 percent of city employees were back online, but water bills didn’t go out to residents until early August. In September, the city acknowledged for the first time that some data was permanently destroyed as a result of the attack.

4. Michael Harrison confirmed as new BPD commissioner, facing headwinds
The job of police commissioner was a veritable merry-go-round in 2018. Mayor Pugh fired Kevin Davis in January and elevated one of his deputies, Darryl De Sousa, to lead the Baltimore Police Department. De Sousa resigned in May after being charged with not paying his taxes. The job then fell to Gary Tuggle, a former Drug Enforcement Administration veteran, who served in an interim capacity until October, when he decided not to seek the job permanently.

Pugh then tapped Fort Worth Chief Joel Fitzgerald for the job, but after increased scrutiny from the council and health problems with his son, he withdrew his name in January 2019. The mayor then landed on Michael Harrison, the chief in New Orleans, who had a reputation for bringing the department in line with a federally enforced consent decree. He was confirmed in March.

While Harrison’s presence means there is stability at the top, the start of his tenure has been shaky. Violence has continued, with the city reaching its highest murder rate per capita with more than 300 homicides for the fifth straight year. Members of the council prodded Harrison for a “comprehensive crime plan. After he did, proposing 10-minute response times and micro-zones for deploying officers, it was met with a clap back from the Fraternal Order of Police and, later, a tepid response from Gov. Larry Hogan.

And the department has struggled to rebuild credibility post-Gun Trace Task Force. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in October she has a list of “hundreds” of officers her office won’t call to testify because of misconduct. A recent Baltimore Sun analysis found that at least 20 officers were arrested, sentenced or suspended during 2019. All of which is to say there’s still plenty of work to be done in the new year.

5. President Trump blasts Baltimore, Cummings
There’s nothing new about President Trump firing off tweets at his enemies. But it was a bit surreal when the entire city was put in Trump’s crosshairs, mainly because he made it seem as if Baltimore was part of some entirely different place he didn’t represent as president of the United States.

Following scrutiny from Rep. Elijah Cummings about conditions on the southern border, Trump lashed out on social media and said the Congressman should spend worry more about his district, “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess.”

“If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place,” Trump tweeted in July. (The district also includes parts of Baltimore and Howard counties.) State and city officials defended Baltimore in all the expected ways, but that didn’t stop Trump from later speculating that billions of dollars given to the city over the years “was stolen or wasted.”

The cherry on top was Trump’s transparently insincere concern over a burglary at Cummings’ Baltimore home. “Too bad!” he offered. Baltimoreans got their own payback in September with a protest as Trump arrived in Harbor East for a conference with Republican lawmakers, including an inflatable rat with the president’s signature hairstyle.

The new Pimlico Race Course on race day. Credit: Populous.

6. Stronach Group, city reach Pimlico deal after contentious fight
For years there’s been talk of the Preakness Stakes leaving Pimlico Race Course, a track that is steeped in history but falling apart, marred by leaky roofs and failing bathrooms. The track’s owners, The Stronach Group, made it pretty clear they wanted to move the race. But it wasn’t until the 2019 General Assembly session that such a move seemed set in stone, with Stronach pushing a bill to get state bonds to turn Laurel Park into a super track.

The city fought back, suing Stronach for control of the race and saying the owners have purposefully neglected the facility in Northwest Baltimore. That was not all. Four Baltimore mayors–Catherine Pugh, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Kurt Schmoke and Martin O’Malley — appealed to the Legislative Black Caucus to block the super track bill. And Del. Nick Mosby raised concerns about the “slum-like” conditions for worker residences at Laurel. The bill soon died.

After that bitter fight and the withdrawal of the city’s lawsuit, Stronach and Baltimore officials went back to the negotiating table. In October, they announced a “historic deal” to build sleeker facilities at both Pimlico and Laurel, with the former designed to function as a community flex space on non-race days. To be clear, there’s still work to be done, namely passing a bill to issue Maryland Stadium Authority bills to fund both tracks.

7. A changing of the guard in Annapolis
Over the last two decades, “Mike and Mike” were pillars of state politics in Annapolis. As House Speaker and Senate President, respectively, Michael Busch and Thomas V. “Mike” Miller wielded considerable influence over proceedings at the State House, making committee appointments and guiding bills through their chambers (or deciding which ones wouldn’t make it out).

That all came to a tragic end in 2019. Busch died in April after a bout with pneumonia. He was the longest-serving state House speaker in Maryland history. In October, Miller announced he was stepping down, saying his body was weakening due to stage 4 prostate cancer. With 34 years at the helm of the Senate, he left as the longest-serving president in state history.

The routes Maryland Democrats took to replace these two long-time leaders were striking in their differences. After a bitter fight with Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and  Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) jockeying for position, Del. Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) emerged as the pick, becoming the first African-American and first woman to serve as speaker. For the Senate, the party sought a more unified path and eventually put its support behind Baltimore State Sen. Bill Ferguson. How Jones and Ferguson tackle these roles is still to be determined. But it’s clear Annapolis won’t be the same.

Students sitting in at Garland Hall on April 5, which was day three of the demonstration. Photo via Students Against Private Police/Facebook.

8. On the second try, Johns Hopkins gets its own police force
A year ago, to the surprise of neighbors and the school community, legislators introduced a bill to give Johns Hopkins University its own police force. Community pushback effectively killed that law, but the school went back to the General Assembly again this year and succeeded in getting its own force to patrol its Homewood campus in North Baltimore, Peabody campus in Mount Vernon and medical campus in East Baltimore. While many of the state’s public universities, including Morgan State University and Coppin State University in the city, have their own police squads, Hopkins needed a special bill as a private institution. 

There was considerable pushback, including a month-long student sit-in that ended with seven arrests, an opposition letter signed by dozens of faculty and an SGA vote opposing the measure. But Hopkins ultimately prevailed, gaining the support of an overwhelming majority of the legislature, as well as a noted alumnus and donor Michael Bloomberg. The university is still rolling out the department and most recently named 13 nominees for the Johns Hopkins University Police Accountability Board, a mix of neighbors, students, faculty and staff.

9. The field for mayor and council president gets crowded fast

As of this writing, 15 candidates have filed to run for mayor, and that’s not counting some of the presumptive favorites, who have until Jan. 24 to get their paperwork in. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young decided he would seek his own term running the city after inheriting the job following Catherine Pugh’s resignation. He previously said he wouldn’t run but ultimately changed his mind. Some of the contenders who have not yet filed: City Council President Brandon Scott, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, former BPD spokesman T.J. Smith and former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah. One who has: State Sen. Mary Washington.

The race for council president is just as interesting, with Councilwoman Shannon Sneed and Councilman Leon Pinkett seeking a promotion after one term on the council, and Del. Nick Mosby looking to get back in after a term in the State House. 

The 2020 election feels like another pivotal moment in the city’s fractious recent history, and it’s sure to be a slog.

10. DPW has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year

2019 was not a year for boosting citizens’ faith in government. And while much of that had to do the aforementioned federal cases made against city officials, let us not forget some other fiascos, a large number of which came courtesy of the Department of Public Works. The Office of the Inspector General released two separate reports detailing how mismanagement and overtime abuse plague the division responsible for trash collection. An audit released in November found DPW allowed $5.6 million in funds collected from citations to go unused.

It also came to light that residents at the posh Ritz-Carlton Residences near Federal Hill hadn’t paid for water in years, despite requests to DPW for bills so they could pay their fair share. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young called for a full audit of the water billing system, which citizens have complained about for years, as a result.

And then there were individual employees caught behaving badly, including one who was found making anti-black, pro-Nazi posts on social media (possibly on the clock, it was later determined) and another who was federally indicted for allegedly using city resources to install new water infrastructure for private developers willing to pay cash.

Shortly before the Ritz-Carlton news broke, Young announced DPW Director Rudy Chow would be leaving his post in 2020. 

Brandon Weigel

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