Gov. Larry Hogan said he stands behind Kenneth C. Holt, his embattled Department of Housing and Community Development secretary.
Hogan, in a statement late Monday, responded to legislators who called for Holt’s resignation in the wake of controversial comments made last week about parents who may intentionally use lead fishing weights to poison their children.
“Governor Hogan met with Secretary Holt today and had a lengthy and very direct conversation about his unfortunate and inappropriate statement,” said Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman in an emailed statement. “The governor expressed his disappointment and directed the secretary to continue reaching out to advocates, legislators, and the community as a whole to reassure them of his commitment to the safety and health of all Marylanders.
“Over the past 7 months, Secretary Holt has proven himself to be a passionate and competent public servant and the governor remains confident that he can continue to effectively lead this department and serve the people of our state,” Mayer added.
The statement followed a letter Monday from more than two dozen Democratic delegates calling for the resignation of Holt.
“These remarks are incredibly offensive and insensitive to the plight of mothers of children with lead poisoning in our State – to say nothing of Marylanders in need of safe, affordable shelter,” said the said the letter, signed by 30 state delegates. Furthermore, your remarks betray a shocking and complete lack of understanding of Maryland law as it relates to a landlord’s responsibility to provide rental property free of lead. ”
The letter went on to call Holt’s statement “particularly insensitive to African-Americans, who have been disproportionately harmed by the devastating effects of lead paint poisoning.”
Holt has been under fire since repeating an anecdote at the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City. Holt said he was told by a property owner who was upset about unlimited liability laws as they relate to injuries from lead poisoning.
“I heard a story yesterday: If a mother wants to put a lead weight, a fishing weight, in the mouth of their child, and take the child for testing, the lead is going to register off the top of the charts,” Holt told the gathering. “And if that child and mother live in a Maryland residence, that landlord is on the hook to provide housing for that child until the age of 18 with unlimited liability. None of that makes any sense whatsoever. So we’re going to support the Maryland Department of the Environment with trying to pursue some common-sense reorganization of that.”
Holt said he was planning to include changes to those liability laws in a legislative package he expected to deliver to Hogan this week.
Following the meeting, Holt said he had no evidence that the story was true but wanted to use it as an example of an unfair law.
“It was an anecdotal story that was described to me as something that could possibly happen and provide (a) burden on the landlord,” Holt told reporters. “First of all, it would not be their responsibility. I don’t think I raised it as a real threat. I described it as something that was told to me from a developer that said: ‘This is a theoretical circumstance that could happen to us. Is that fair? Is that right?’ And it’s absolutely not fair or right that they have to assume the burden of something that is maybe a scheme.”
The comments came under immediate criticism from the public and elected officials including Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, and from others.
Saul E. Kerpelman, a Baltimore-based attorney who has represented plaintiffs in lead paint cases, said Holt’s comments are offensive and similar to the “mythical welfare queen” comments that emerged 30 years ago.
“The comments are outrageous and I also think there is an undercurrent of racism,” Kerpelman said. “It’s never happened. It makes the mom into a monster when it’s usually the landlords who are usually the monsters.”
Kerpelman said that if Holt and the state wanted to reform the law, they should look at legislation creating market-share liability that would allow plaintiffs lawyers to go after companies that made and sold the lead paint.
“Instead of suing some Joe Schmo landlord, Joe Schmo landlord would have a couple of multibillion-dollar companies sitting next to him and they’re the real bad actors,” Kerpelman said. “If (Holt’s) comments were to lead to market share that would be a wonderful thing.”
‘Off the reservation’
Rutherford, who spoke to the same gathering on Saturday, said Holt had not discussed the proposal with either himself nor Hogan.
“We don’t know where that came from,” Rutherford told reporters. “I think he was a little off the reservation on that. He’s never spoken to me or the governor or anyone on the senior staff about that so I have no idea where that came from.”
Rutherford went on to say that there would be no legislation to change the current lead paint liability laws in the state.
Audra Harrison, a spokeswoman for Holt, later that day issued a statement apologizing for the remarks. On Monday, she issued another vowing to work with advocates and legislators to resolve the anger over the comments.
“The secretary met with the governor earlier today at which time the governor expressed his disappointment with the secretary’s comments,” Harrison said in the statement. “Secretary Holt is committed to working with advocates, legislators, and families to move forward, rebuild trust, and strengthen the already-strong record DHCD has on this important issue.”
The letter is not the first call for Holt to resign. Sen Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City, in an interview on Maryland News This Week on WBAL radio, called Holt’s comments “insensitive” and said “no parent puts their child in danger like that.”
“In my opinion, Secretary Holt either needs to resign or he needs to meet with some of the advocates and he needs to meet with members of the community as well as the legislature to explain why he would make such remarks publicly and where he is going with this issue as it related to lead paint,” Pugh said Sunday.
Harrison, in a statement issued Sunday afternoon, didn’t directly address the question of whether Holt was considering resignation but said the secretary was trying to move beyond the “regrettable comments.”
“Secretary Holt had productive conversations with Senator Pugh as well as a number of other elected officials and advocates regarding his regrettable comments. He remains committed to working vigorously to protect the health and safety of Maryland families,” Harrison said in her statement.