The Honorable Mayor Catherine E. Pugh of Baltimore says she’s been putting in work since taking office just eight months ago. Getting in on the action is a leadership style she’s employed as a public servant for more than 15 years as a councilwoman for Baltimore’s 4th District; a member of the House of Delegates of the Maryland General Assembly; and a state Senator for Maryland, a position that has unfolded opportunities for her to serve as Majority Leader and flex her political prowess across the aisle on issues that have sustaining effects on African American communities, locally and nationally.
The Pennsylvania native’s resume of servant leadership in Baltimore is extensive, beginning with her studies at Morgan State University, where she earned a bachelor’s and an MBA. From there, she worked as a banker, a business developer, and later took a position as the dean and director of Strayer Business College. As president of CEPugh and Company, a public relations and marketing firm, Pugh is no stranger to making media. The former television and radio news reporter and talk show host is the author of a series of children’s books and a book of inspirational poetry.
When it comes to Baltimore, the mayor wants the same things every other city citizen wants—a safe village where children are nurtured, jobs are plentiful, neighborhoods are warm, and people have access to the resources they need to thrive as members of a community, and in life.
More than 100 community leaders attended themayor’s Call to Action at Baltimore City Community College in June, many reporting their readiness to get right to work in supporting her vision. Here, the chief of Baltimore, the village of villages connected by grit and grace, shares what came out of that initial meeting of the minds, and her experience thus far as Charm City’s mayor. And, in response to The Sun paper’s editorial scrutiny of her latest initiatives ad policy decisions, Mayor Pugh invites the media to get in on the action and be part of the transformation already happening in the heart of the city.
Baltimore Urban Spectrum: Mayor, Pugh you say you purposely avoid taking the Jones Fall Expressway when heading home after a day’s work at City Hall. What draws you to take the scenic route?
Honorable Mayor Catherine E. Pugh: “I’ve been in office now for about 8 months and I think whenever you come into a new environment, you set a vision and a goal for what you want your city to look like. From zero to whatever age— you’ve got to care foreverybody, because you have a responsibility to all of the citizens that live in your city.
Then, you walk into the office and you are confronted with a number of things. For example, a DOJ report that required a consent decree to be done. Wasn’t done.
Then immediately following that, we learned that our school system had a structural deficit, which meant that teachers weren’t going to be in classrooms it meant that the future of our children was at stake. So, I spent January through April working with the General Assembly looking at what we could do…going into my city reserves to craft something that would provide a commitment to help our structural deficit over the next three years of $190 million. And that was important to me because that focused on our young people…
BUS: …While exponential rates of senseless violence, drug addiction, and substance abuse continue to stir unrest in our schools and neighborhoods…
CP: We had to do in 60 days what, for example, Ferguson—with 50 police officers—took 13 months to do. New Orleans… took 14 months. We did it in 60 days.
I [remember when] I stood on the corner of Pennsylvania and Laurens for almost two hours talking to about 100 different people about what they saw our needs being in our city—in our community. Everyone wants the same thing…a job and a place to live.
Even if people have drug addiction problems, they want to work, and that’s why we created small contracts because we know that some of these citizens are difficult to hire, yet they can help us in many ways, and we can help them. So we’re doing that with grassroots organizations and community groups; individuals inside of our neighborhoods who canhep change that paradigm.
BUS: You mentioned drug addiction—how are we moving forward on that issue?
CP: Here’s what we must do. We must do drug treatment in our communities more responsibly because we have propped up too many drug treatment centers in poor black neighborhoods, or what the media considers to be poor black neighborhoods. But what’s been forgotten is that there are people who live in those neighborhoods, and people who brought their homes and aren’t going anywhere. Those citizens—and their homes—have been devalued by virtue of not running drug treatment centers respectfully in our neighborhoods and communities. And, they should be medically based.
BUS: You say public safety is one of the biggest issues facing Baltimore right now. Can you speak more to that, especially in regards to the proposal of local legislation that will make it a misdemeanor crime, punishable by a mandatory sentence of one year and a fine of $1,000 for possessing an illegal handgun within 100 yards of a park, a school, a church, a public building or another place of public assembly?
CP: Public safety is key. Now people say, “why is that so important?” Too many guns, illegal guns, on the streets of our city. Too many babies being caught in cross fires because people don’t realize that we have too many illegal guns on our streets. People can get guns if they want, but there’s a process for getting a legal gun, so I had to pay particular attention to that.
And the reason that was so important isbecause after the death of Freddie Gray, there was this vision that Baltimore City didn’t care about the people. That there was this lack of confidence in our police department and that they didn’t respect our neighborhoods and communities.
BUS: What steps has the city taken toward honoring the proposed consent decree in response to last year’s DOJ report?
CP: What the consent decree required is that we put together a proposal that had to be accepted by the courts that said we’re going to put something in place that one, instills confidence in the community in our police department that provides the training and technology that they need, but also develops that engagement between the community and the police department.
We hire police officers to protect and serve. They’re not supposed to be our enemy. They are from us; they should be from us. They should be of our community.
I learned early on that 70 percent of our officers don’t live in our city. We focused on getting that done, and it’s done. It’s been approved by the courts; we’re now at the stage where we have selected the community oversight group and are in the process of selecting the monitors.
BUS: Speaking of the media, The Sun reported last month, “The violence is not a blip. It is the continuation of a torrid trend of assaults,shootings and murders that has continued with no respite for two years, yet the city is still stumbling its way toward anything like a coherent plan for stemming the bloodshed. It’s long past time for the city to unite behind a new anti-violence strategy and commit to carrying it through.” What is your response to that?
CP: First of all, I think The Sun paper is so off. And I have no problems confronting them because they offer no solutions. They stand on the outsidebecause they too, get on 83 and go up the road and don’t participate in our neighborhoods and communities. They don’t know what we’re doing; they have not had a conversation with me.
BUS: So what did come out of the Call to Action gathering in June?
CP: For two years [The Sun] sat around and criticized the last [mayor]…but that’s not my issue. I’ve been here for eight months. My issue is working with people. When I called the city people to action, they didn’t attend that.
Every week, I meet with about 17 to 20 grassroots people in the neighborhoods and communities and we looked at empowering programs in our communities and neighborhoods—you can ask Umar Boxing Center. You can ask [community leaders] up in Park Heights. You can ask the Muslim community. We’re empowering them because they’re on the ground every day.
You know, people want instant change. Yeah well, instant change is not happening.
They should hire somebody who is willing to follow me to see what I’m doing or to have a conversation with me. I shouldn’t have to go down and tell them what I’m doing. They can follow me every day. They can sit in on the conversations if they want to, but they don’t. And I don’t have time to waste because time is valuable. That’s why I’m working with the folks who I know are willing to work with me…those folks that are out there on the ground every day.
They [The Sun] want to make noise, I want to makechange. They don’t want to get in on the action. They don’t want to cover the action; they’re just keeping this negativity going instead of asking, well, ‘what is she doing? Let’s sit down with her?’”
BUS: Mayor, I came across an article some years ago entitled “And How Are the Children?” by Patrick T. O’Neill, that tells a story of the Masai, one of the most “accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa. This question – translated in the tribal tongue as “Kasserian Ingera”— was, and still is, “the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, ‘All the children are well.’ Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place.”
With this perspective in mind, can you speak to how is your work as mayor is ultimately giving our children a sense of empowerment? How are the children?
CP: I believe that when we touch our children at their earliest age that changes the trajectory of their lives, which is why I am a big believer in Judy Centers. They start training our children at six weeks of age.
So the question is “are our children well?” It depends on where you’re looking. In some neighborhoods and communities, absolutely, but in some communities absolutely not. We have neglected neighborhoods and communities for decades. I’m looking at how do we make more programs available for youth like extended library hours so and [expanding] this community school concept where we use the school for more than just coming to the classroom, but being able to extend services longer.
We’re now having more mental health services for our young people because I can’t imagine what it’s like as a child to hear gunfire or to know someone who’s gotten shot. We have to make sure that our children are mentally taken care of.
[On a positive note], we have so many young people who worked this summer. We had more children go to work this summer than ever in the history of the city—almost 8500 children. And I can’t tell you how many texts I got from companies and corporations. And I said to them, “Don’t just throw me $1500 to pay a youth to work this summer, take that child into your corporation, so they can get the experience that they don’t ordinarily get. And so there’s that.