Baltimore has acquired a reputation for corruption, illustrated recently by Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned over allegations she had inappropriately taken payment in exchange for political favors. But the more ominous threats confronting the city, such as rampant crime and poverty, persist. Amna Nawaz talks to ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis about what could be a “fresh start” for Baltimore.
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After weeks of headlines about a personal scandal that was tarnishing the city's image, former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh finally resigned today.
The city, as The Baltimore Sun put it, has long dealt with a history of wrongdoing by politicians, all of that on top of serious problems with crime, violence and a lack of economic opportunity.
We look at this moment now and whether it presents a larger opportunity.
Alec MacGillis is a reporter for ProPublica who is a longtime resident of the city. He wrote about the city's underlying concerns extensively in a piece called "The Tragedy of Baltimore." It was published by The New York Times and ProPublica.
Alec MacGillis, welcome to the "NewsHour."
Let's just start with this moment right now. How important is it for Baltimore that Catherine Pugh is gone?
It's very important.
There's a real sense of relief here in town. It was a very strange few weeks here to have a mayor who was on leave, completely visible. No one really knew where she was, completely in limbo. No one knew what was going to happen. So now we finally have some real clarity.
We know who our mayor is for the next year. The city council president has stepped up to be mayor. And we're going to have an election next year that is going to give us our new permanent mayor. So there's a real chance for kind of a fresh start and a reckoning right now.
As we mentioned, you are a resident. You have also been covering this for a long time. So what is that path forward for Baltimore?
Well, the path forward really takes two different tacks right now, I would say.
One is that there has to be further reckoning with what happened in this particular scandal, the scandal involving these children's books that were being sold by the mayor to all sorts of people with companies with interests in city government.
This was all exposed thanks to great reporting by The Baltimore Sun. And there needs to be fuller accountability for all the people who are involved in the scandal.
It's important to keep in mind that Catherine Pugh was elected with the support of a lot of the big business interests here in town. And so there needs to be sort of an accountability for all those folks who supported her and were involved in the scandal.
More broadly, though, there needs to be a really a competitive, healthy election next year that gives us the chance to find new leadership for this city, the kind of new leadership that we should have gotten three years ago in the 2016 election, following all the protests and crisis after Freddie Gray's death.
That was this key moment where we could have moved forward and really started to rebuild the city. And we — the city kind of missed that opportunity. And now, three or four years later, we're hopefully going to get that chance again.
Alec, I was reading, in the aftermath of her resignation, one state senator said, this entire episode has been hurtful for this city.
So tell me a little bit about how deep a hole the city is in now. How do they gain back public trust?
Well, it really goes far beyond this one scandal. This scandal was embarrassing.
But what's been happening more broadly in the city the last few years is really kind of general unraveling of order and governance. Baltimore was actually — for all of Baltimore's longstanding troubles, Baltimore was actually headed in a good direction not that long ago.
The homicide rate had dropped quite a bit early this decade. Population was even growing again, which was quite remarkable. But then, following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries in police custody, and all the unrest that followed that, things really kind of fell apart in the city.
The homicide rate surged to just record-breaking levels. We have had this massive police corruption case. We had one police commissioner after another being turned in and out of office. And we had City Hall and actually the rest of government too, going all the way up to governor, Governor Hogan, failing to respond to this real crisis of governance.
So that's what we have seen in the city. It's not a general economic collapse. It's a breakdown of order and governance. It's been really quite, quite terrifying and sad to behold. And the hope is that now we have kind of hit bottom in a sense. And we can have this kind of moment of clarity and real reckoning and rebuild from here.
Hopefully, better days ahead for the people of Baltimore.
Alec MacGillis, thanks so much for being with us tonight.