Rookie ANC official Pugh's efforts part of rising civic energy in Southeast D.C.

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 12:17 AM

When Nicole Pugh stepped into the voting booth in November, she had two things on her mind: Vote for mayor and go about her usual Tuesday business.

Then she got curious: What was this Advisory Neighborhood Commission on the ballot?

So, after some quick reading - and feeling a little whimsical - Pugh wrote her name on the ballot for her local ANC district, 8E01. What could be the harm?

A week later, she learned that her impulse had turned her into a local politician. Her lone vote put her in charge of a district that hadn't been represented in 14 years.

Call her the accidental commissioner.

"I just walked in and said, 'Hmmm what's this?' " Pugh recalled on a recent Saturday morning, chuckling at the fact that she didn't knock on any doors, copy any fliers or kiss any babies to get the job. "I read a little bit about what the seat was about and then just wrote my name in. Who knew?"

For Pugh, a self-titled policy wonk, joining the lowest rung of D.C. politics means attending endless meetings and no extra money. But she does get a city pass that allows her to park for free almost anywhere she wants when she is on ANC business.

"I don't have one regret," said Pugh, 32, a Denver native who moved to Washington in 2003. "For some reason I find this reeeally fun."

Two months into her term as her district's new commissioner, Pugh is taking on the unexpected role with enthusiasm. She attends as many meetings as her schedule allows, with young Democrats or at the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus to discuss the construction of the Department of Homeland Security headquarters. She takes meticulous notes on her iPad and uploads them to her new ANC blog.

And because she didn't know much about the commissions before she wrote herself in, she has visited ANC meetings from Georgetown to U Street, figuring out how the panels work and how commissioners run them.

After two morning meetings recently, Pugh walked her district, passing out fliers that announced a coming meeting. The streets were empty that afternoon, and she didn't have a single conversation with a constituent. "I figured I didn't really know what I was doing, so I'd better get out and figure out how commissioners do what they do," she said.

Pugh's efforts are part of a growing civic energy east of the Anacostia River, largely fueled by those who bought homes in new housing developments over the past decade. Since 2000, more than 9,000 units have been built in the area, often designed for low or moderate incomes.

But since 2005, hundreds of other privately developed market-rate homes, apartments and condominiums have been built, which, by the standards of other parts of the city, remain a bargain. These new homes are being snatched up by people such as Pugh: 30-something, white-collar and African American. She has lived in Henson Ridge, a 300-townhouse development, with her fiance since 2008.

"When we came out here, we wanted to be part of the community in a real way," said Marty Martin, 34, Pugh's fiance, who often helps distribute fliers and prepare for meetings.

Civic activism for many of these younger residents includes rushing to the aid of local businesses. The paucity of sit-down restaurants has been a long-standing concern. So when one of the new ones, Thai Orchid's Kitchen on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, was robbed two months ago, some of the younger Ward 7 activists organized a weekly dinner for several dozen people. They hoped to persuade the owners to stay and not put up bulletproof windows used by so many restaurants in their neighborhood.

"We have enough trouble trying to get restaurants to come over here, and the ones that do, we want to support," said Maceo Thomas, a real estate agent and community organizer who came up with the idea for the monthly dinners. He lives near Fort Dupont Park and for several years has taken an active role in creating events for the communities east of the river. "I felt it was our responsibility to rally with financial support."

In Pugh's case, she's trying to create interest in local politics where it has been moribund. ANC meetings can be tedious, contentious and sometimes petty.

But none of this has deterred Pugh, a management consultant who often talks about her ANC post as if it were a business project. Some of her colleagues on the commission see her as a bit of an oddity.

"She has a lot to learn, but we're glad to have her," said ANC Commissioner Sandra Seegars, who has become somewhat of a legend in Ward 8 for running her meetings in a brusque and precise manner. "We had two ladies who used to come from Nicole's district a while ago, but we haven't seen them in a while. I'm just glad to have a full commission now. But I just hope she knows what she's getting into."

Pugh has already gotten a taste of the rough and tumble nature of how meetings can play out. On Wednesday, the 8E ANC held a special meeting. On the agenda: a vote to remove the panel's treasurer, Stephen Slaughter. There were disagreements and recriminations, with Seegars yelling, "You're out of order!" to Melvin Sims, one of the commissioners.

Pugh peppered Sims about a concern he had over whether she should be allowed to vote on the Slaughter matter. After a short back and forth, Sims told Pugh: "Don't get smart with me."

She held her ground and continued her questions. Later, she said of being cut off: "That was just rude."

But Pugh remains steadfast about making her mark. "I'm not worried about any of that. This community deserves good representation, and there's no reason why we can't get people interested in this district again."

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