What Baltimore’s Children’s Book Scam Says About Corporate Power
Baltimore Beat Editor-in-Chief Lisa Snowden-McCray discusses the fallout from the unfolding Healthy Holly corruption scandal
Baltimore Beat Editor-in-Chief Lisa Snowden-McCray discusses the fallout from the unfolding Healthy Holly corruption scandal
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In case somehow you missed it, over the last month, the Sun has uncovered that Mayor Catherine Pugh failed to disclose more than half a million dollars in sales of her Healthy Holly books to corporations she had official dealings with. The corruption scandal continues to widen, with more prominent corporations and business people acknowledging they, too, purchased copies of the children’s book while engaged in government business with Pugh when she was state senator and then mayor. Well, the mayor took a leave of absence for health reasons this week, but the hits keep on coming with no end in sight.
What does this mean for a city facing crises on multiple fronts, and how can the interim mayor Jack Young manage a city with a leadership vacuum at the top? Joining me in studio to answer these questions and more is the editor in chief of the Baltimore Beat, Lisa Snowden-McCray. Thanks so much for joining us.
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Thanks for having me.
JAISAL NOOR: So where is Healthy Holly? We know you have a copy with you right now.
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I do have a copy of Healthy Holly. I got it before–I guess there’s now a few copies on Amazon that are like, over $100. I got it when it was still, like, four bucks right when the story broke.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, you’ve had a chance to go through this. You’ve been tweeting about it and posting about it. What is this book? What is inside this book?
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I mean, it’s Holly and her family. I mean, it’s pretty basic stuff. I have kids, so it’s a lot of the stuff that you see–you know, educational stuff like running and jumping is good for you, eating healthy foods is good for you. It’s Holly and her family. I don’t know… People have been talking about the illustration, and the illustration is interesting. People have a lot of questions when I show them the book, and they’re like, “Why is everything looking at me?” But yeah, that’s what it is.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, there’s tens of thousands of these books are missing. A reporter with The Sun said he found a car full of Healthy Holly books parked in front of the mayor’s house yesterday. We have a Tweet of that. Where do things stand right now, from your understanding?
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: From my understanding, people are still digging. People are trying to find out where the books are. I’ve seen some people wondering, with all these books that were promised to all these different powerful entities, were there even enough books to go around? Is that why we’re not finding them? I wrote a little bit for The Beat about how there were some echoes of Trump. When I think one of the Sun reporters first tried to get more information, the mayor said, “Is this a witch hunt?” But it feels very Trumpian that a lot of times there are these days where it’s just like every day you log online and there’s this new breaking news, like every day this thing keeps getting wider and wider and wider. So I think that really, things are kind of in freefall, it feels like.
JAISAL NOOR: So the state investigator has launched a probe, the City Ethics Board announced they’re reviewing dozens of contracts that involve the mayor. What do you think is out there?
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I would be surprised if there were not more ties uncovered. I think one of the things that we all know as reporters covering Baltimore is that the people, the city’s kind of ruling class, is small and tight-knit, which is how things like this happen. It will be interesting to me how far these probes go, because I just feel like whenever there is some hint of corruption, it’s usually not just one person. It’s not like the mayor woke up one day and decided she was going to do this. There was a whole environment and a culture that allowed her to do this. So if there is a thorough code, or a thorough investigation, then we’ll see other people involved. I mean, that will really be the test of whether it is a thorough probe or not, because I just can’t see it only being her.
JAISAL NOOR: So earlier this week, I talked to Morgan State professor, scholar, and activist Lawrence Brown, and he made that point. He said that this is bigger than just Catherine Pugh. Here’s that clip.
LAWRENCE BROWN: What we’re seeing in the city is really how powerful corporations have distorted and perverted our city government. And I think every citizen ought to take real umbrage with that, and they should really look at–you know, on some level, a lot of people already know that. A lot of people are already feel like the game–if you look at David Simon’s The Wire, he talks about “the game.” That show illustrates through the analogy of chess how you have more powerful players in the game that push pawns, and the pawns are the ones that get sacrificed in the show. And I think that’s a powerful analogy for Baltimore. Pawns are getting sacrificed, while the king, the queen, the bishops, the rooks, they’re getting off the hook.
So I think I want to understand–I want Baltimore to be able to understand how the game is really being played so we can systematically take that game apart. We ought to be dismantling that game, because too many lives are at stake. This is not a game. People are dying. We need to tear this game apart and make sure people have a real authentic voice. And we can’t do that if corporations have their hands in the cookie jar.
JAISAL NOOR: So that was Lawrence Brown making the point that Catherine Pugh was like a pawn in this, part of a much bigger game. And he says we need to tear apart this game, the stakes are way too high in Baltimore. We have a murder rate, we have the impacts of redlining, all of these harmful policies that are not being addressed while this scandal continues to widen. Your thoughts on that?
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I mean, I agree. I think that none of the problems that plague Baltimore are a surprise to anybody who has the luxury of paying attention. I say the luxury of paying attention because there are so many people that are like struggling from day to day, and so they can’t wonder. They don’t have the luxury of sitting here like we do and pontificating. They’re just trying to make sure their kids have schools where they’re not freezing cold or passing out from heat, making sure that they’re not lead poisoned, making sure that they have a job, making sure that they have transportation to have jobs. So yeah, we all know that.
But the thing that really–this opportunity, which is like… You know, we make jokes about this book because it’s funny, but it’s an opportunity to really clean house if people are motivated to clean house. And that’s the thing, though, is whether people are motivated to clean house. Because I think that situations like corruption happen when some people get on, and they’re like, “Oh, this is great.” And they’re like, “That’s it.” That’s where things end, like “I’m good now, I’m able to buy this really nice house,” or “I’m able to have this really fancy position, and the other people, they’ll be fine.”
JAISAL NOOR: And so, this whole scandal is kind of bringing to light how much power the mayor has in the city. She sets the budget and she has a line item veto; if the city council wants something and she doesn’t, she can get rid of that. She controls the board of estimates, so a lot of the contracts that are being looked at were often no-bid contracts that she could have–we’ll see what the dealings are there. But have you heard calls for systemic change? Because we’re going to have an election. You talked about Trump, it’s a presidential year. Do you think people will turn out and rally around progressive reform in the city like we haven’t seen?
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I mean, I definitely see citizens in Baltimore doing that. I don’t see the electeds. I think last week, when people started kind of saying, “Is anybody going to speak up? Is anyone in power, city council, somebody in Annapolis, are they going to call for the mayor to do anything?” I think Bill Henry it was that literally broke it down it was like–I don’t want to paraphrase him, but basically, “the mayor is very strong, and us doing that is a high political risk.”
JAISAL NOOR: He can’t, because then they’ll get stuff cut out from their districts.
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I mean, and again, I’m a little nuts, so I would hope that people would recognize the urgency of the situation and still do it, and say, “You know what, this is a time for me to really show my principles.” But I haven’t seen that. And I don’t really have much hope. I mean, I guess I always have hope, but I haven’t seen anybody kind of willing to take that political risk.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, I wanted to ask you, the issue of the journalism surrounding this. We’re finding out about these deals years after they happened, and so far the scope is mostly focused on the mayor. But we know that she is just one member of this board at the University of Maryland Medical Center. And she got maybe 500, 600 thousand dollars, but there’s other members, former Senator Kelly, other folks whose families got millions, if not tens of millions of dollars on there. There’s not much talk. We know they stepped down from the board temporarily, but there’s not a reporter sort of swarming their businesses as far as we know so far.
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Right. There’s a whole bunch of mess here. There’s the journalism aspect, which is like some of this stuff we should have known about. Some of the reporting that’s happening now around the mayor should have been happening already, but we just… You know, I’m sure you know very well, because you’re a reporter here also, journalism is shrinking, and so there weren’t people. I saw today a Sun reporter went down to the mayor’s consignment shop and actually checked to see if it was open and it wasn’t, and they were selling weird Groupons that weren’t actually redeemable, another thing that should have already been happening.
There is always–especially if you’re talking to me–there’s always going to be a level of anti-blackness, and if you’re a woman also, it’s going to make–that target’s on your back always. One of the things that I kind of rant about is that if journalism as a whole, and even if we’re talking specifically about Baltimore, if it was blacker, if it looked like the community it was telling stories about, it would be a lot easier to figure this stuff out. If you’re a white, especially male, reporter in Baltimore, there’s a whole black Baltimore life that you know nothing about. These social situations where corruption can possibly happen, just things going on that you’re just going to miss because you’re not there and you cannot be in that community.
JAISAL NOOR: There’s a lot of stuff people don’t post on social media and they won’t put publicly, but if you know them, they trust you, they’ll let you know what’s going on.
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: And the thing also is that there are people that deserve to be written about in a way that… Because this anti-blackness exists, because you’re just going to face more scrutiny if you’re a woman, when you do write certain things, people are able to discount them more if you’re not–like it’s easier… If you have a powerful black woman like the mayor, a powerful black woman like Marilyn Mosby, get a black woman to write about her. I think it would make it so much better, and then also it would be so much harder for people who are maybe naysayers. Like there was a Pugh staffer that said, “Oh, well this is just attacking her because she’s black.” Which I don’t think that’s the case, but you wouldn’t be able to make those kind of arguments if you had a newsroom that looked like the city.
JAISAL NOOR: Exactly. I think that’s a great point. And so, I wanted to end on some of the protests that happened at Hopkins yesterday. There’s been ongoing protests, hundreds of people protested for the last months and even year against a private police force there. We know that Hopkins yesterday said that they never got copies of Healthy Holly. The mayor tried to sell them some, but they declined. But thanks to the Baltimore Brew, we know about Hopkins officials gave Catherine Pugh $16,000 the first day of the General Assembly this year, shortly before she introduced this private police force bill, something that the students especially are concerned about, community members are concerned about. Yesterday I talked to the president of the Black Student Union at Johns Hopkins about her concerns.
CHISOM OKEREKE: And I’m here on behalf of the Black Student Union to make sure that Hopkins’s administration knows that we do not support the legislation that was just passed that would allow them to establish their own private police force, especially since students and students of color on this campus already don’t feel safe with the already present law enforcement and abuse on campus. We want to make sure that we know that we are adamantly against adding weapons and dangerous arms to those–to those hands.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, your thoughts about… So that’s sort of–what the Hopkins officials did was totally legal. As individuals, they’re allowed to donate to whoever they want.
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: But it looks bad. It looks bad, and that money has influence. There has been… I think it’s Bloomberg that I think has been a big proponent of that. Bloomberg has lots of money that he already invests in the city. Like, legal or not, we have this situation where if you have money, if you’re powerful, and we have people in this city that are willing to profit off of that, who kind of see the state of the city as hopeless, so they need that money, that’s a major player.
So it’s interesting to me about the Hopkins police force fight, if you watch some of the great reporting out of Annapolis, that got steamrolled right through. And there were very few lawmakers–I think Senator Mary Washington and Senator Jill Carter, black women, who would kind of like say–I think also Nick Mosby has done some really good stuff around it–where they say, “OK, well what about we do things to make this more equitable,” and everything got shot down systemically, just shot down. Kids that are going to Hopkins, that are bright kids that are going to make our lives better one day, they’re going to be our bosses, they shouldn’t be on campus scared that they’re going to be targeted by these people that are ostensibly here to help. I feel like I went all over the place with that answer, but hopefully I answered it.
JAISAL NOOR: Yeah. Well, it’s always a pleasure to have you on, Lisa Snowden-McCray. Check out your work at the Baltimore Beat on Twitter and on Facebook. And definitely this is continuing to grow and widen and we don’t know where it’s going next, but we’ll definitely keep following your work, and Brandon’s work also, at The Beat. He’s been all over the fight around the Hopkins police force. Appreciate what you guys do, and thank you so much for joining us.
LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Thanks for having me on.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.