State Senator Catherine Pugh is a politician.
It's a badge she wears with honor.
While political candidates on the national scene—He, Who Shall Not Be Named, for example, whom we'll call Drumpf—shout that "our politicians are stupid" and the local field of mayoral candidates is flush with people who have never held elected office—DeRay Mckesson, Joshua Harris, Patrick Gutierrez, Gersham Cupid, and a slew of others, including Elizabeth Embry who declares on her website's "about" page quite directly that she "is not a politician" and that the city does not need their "recycled ideas and stale politics"—Pugh opts to see the title as an honorific. She points to the dictionary definition. Merriam Webster's defines a politician as "a person experienced in the art or science of government; especially: one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government."
There's no shame in that.
"It's certainly not terminology that should be used in negative way because it's an opportunity to serve people, in the best way possible," she says. "That's the kind of leadership and vision I bring to Baltimore." She doesn't even dignify Webster's second definition with a mention: "a person primarily interested in political office for selfish or other narrow usually short-sighted reasons."
And why should she cite the second definition?
Sitting on the couch in her Annapolis senate office in a turquoise power suit, gold buttons, and matching three-inch pumps, she sees her years of work as a Baltimore City Council member (1999 to 2003 ), a Maryland General Assembly delegate (2005), and her current position as a State Senator (elected in 2007) and Senate Majority Leader as a credit to her candidacy, not a liability.
And after a few days of slogging through her world—watching her at an Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee meeting in Annapolis on March 2, sitting through the world's most tedious mayoral candidates forum sponsored by the Baltimore City Medical Political Action Committee on March 1, spending a Saturday watching her give a speech at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and then glad-hand at the Mondawmin Mall on Feb. 27—I'm inclined to agree that being a politician and politicking, at least at the local level, demands lots of "service" and yields little glamour.
But here's what I notice.
Catherine Pugh knows everyone who is anyone in Baltimore—and then knows a whole lot more "no ones," the slew of low-level back-bone volunteers who work at the block-level, neighborhood-watch, rec-center, PTO-parent level. She has served on 23 community boards over the years and seems to know a vast swath of players. And she hugs them. Staid college deans, somber corporate mucky-mucks, scruffy activists, sincere students, surprised journalists. She is a huggy-person. (She even took some heat on social media for a photo of her hugging a protester after she stood with them last April and warned media like Fox News' Geraldo Rivera "to move back, because this is just inciting people;" she also urged protesters to "take your babies home" in efforts to diffuse the situation and respect the curfew, according to press accounts.)
Still, despite her warmth, she is hard to get a bead on. She is polished, on-point, reveals little, stays on message. While other candidates pepper their speeches with personal anecdotes, like former-mayor Sheila Dixon who shared with the audience at the March 1 health-related forum the story of her brother's battle with heroin addiction, candidate DeRay Mckesson who referred to his parents' addiction, and candidate Sarah Klauda who in a TMI moment announced, "I have a family where 75 percent of us are mentally ill," Pugh sticks to her script and platform: reduce health care disparities, increase access to holistic drug treatment, eliminate food deserts, expand recreation and physical activities for residents of the city .
She is most passionate when talking about education. She chairs the board of Station North's Baltimore Design School which she helped found in 2011 and sees as a model of what public schools should be like in Baltimore. First, she cites the fact that it has a board of directors at all. Most public schools don't. Board members can use their reach to help obtain grants, offer business-school partnerships, provide internships, she says. "It's not necessarily people who have kids in the school and it's not to run the day-to-day, but it's a way to make sure schools have what they need in terms of supplies and resources," she says. "I'd like to see that expand all over the city."
Pugh also has an expansive view of education—and when it should start—and is an ardent supporter of universal pre-K and Judy Centers. While hundreds of studies have shown the critical importance of the learning that goes on from birth to five, particularly when it comes to bringing poor children up so that they enter kindergarten at the same level as more privileged kids, Baltimore has lagged behind other cities in providing that community resource.
Judy Centers, funded through private-public partnerships, are one effort to address that. Pugh would like to expand the number of Judy Centers—there are currently 13 in Baltimore—so that these early-childhood learning centers, which also provide resources for the parents of young kids, are available to more residents. "The earlier we reach these children, the better," she says.
Pugh is also pushing for more mayoral control of the schools and as State Senator has introduced a bill pushing for the appointment of school board members to shift from the governor to the mayor. "I want the buck to stop at the mayor's desk," she says, adding that she would also increase the city's share of the school budget so that it would better bolster the state's funding.
Pugh, a graduate of Morgan State University, puts education first but has mapped a 11-page , five-part platform that includes, public safety initiatives such as requiring body cameras for officers and strengthening the power of the civilian review board and a push for accountability and transparency among city generated economic development programs—among other things. She is running on her competency—she has passed over 150 pieces of legislation , she reminds voters on her website—and has the money to get her message out; her campaign has raised more than $650,000. A lot of this money comes the business connections around the state that she has built up over the years, but some of it comes from far-flung places, like California and Texas (see our online map of which zip codes in Baltimore and across the U.S. are supporting which candidates at www.citypaper.com) and some of it, as City Paper reported on Feb. 22 , comes from comes from companies or people that don't actually seem to exist. Many of these "donors" have ties to Giovanna "Gia" Blatterman, who has been a political fund-raiser in Little Italy for decades.
Pugh's campaign spokesperson, Anthony McCarthy denied that any money was being funneled into Pugh's campaign in excess of the $6,000 donation limit through straw companies or people. "Our campaign has received thousands of contributions from individual and corporate supporters in compliance with campaign finance law," he told City Paper last month. "Any misspellings or transcription errors that appear in the reporting system will be corrected."
Pugh, for her part, sticks to her message of making the city great again. "Because I love the city, the people, the diversity," she says, "I want the challenge of making the city as great as it was under [former Mayor] Donald Schaefer." She says the city needs a leader that "can bring us all together, that helps us understand that every neighborhood is important, every child is important." She insists leadership needs to be "inclusive" and her years of political experience will help her make Baltimore strong.
"I'm not afraid to speak up and pull people together," she says. "I've had conversations with most of the college presidents in this city, with the philanthropic community, and faith leaders and all of those relationships which have been very inclusive have prepared me for this moment."
We can't have two Baltimores, Pugh insists. "One part of the city can't look one way and the other part a different way," she says and references the uprising here in April. "Someone said to me, 'Why would you be standing on the corner of North and Penn?' I said, 'Why would I be anywhere else?'" She sees it as a way to let people know, "If you lift the least of us, you lift all of us."
And indeed, she seems to sympathize with, and know, many of the city's activists.
At the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, where Pugh has spoken at a Black History Month celebration on Feb. 27, she returns to the stage at one point to accept an award on behalf of a local activist, Duane "Shorty" Davis, who is a no-show, explaining to the crowd that he is probably not here today because she thinks this is his day for working with the homeless.
Pugh knows she will run into him—how could she not?—as she moves through the city in her seemingly endless round of community meetings, forums, ceremonies. (And indeed, the next day she hands over the plaque to him.) The museum's awards ceremony concludes, Pugh circulates a bit and then prepares to duck out for a get-out-the-vote rally at Mondawmin. But as the Morgan State University choir swings into "We are Climbing Jacob's Ladder," she is waylaid by some well-wishers who are "so excited" she is running for mayor and does she remember meeting them last year and of course she does and no, she doesn't mind at all taking a photo with them. She puts her arms across their shoulders—hug, click, chat—and she is off to her next event.