The list of challenges facing the next mayor of Baltimore is daunting: enduring poverty, widespread blight, high unemployment, low high-school-graduation rates, troubling crime levels and allegations of police misconduct.
“You couldn’t pay me to do that job,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the dean of Maryland’s political establishment and a self-described resident of Baltimore’s “inner, inner city.”
But Mayor-elect Catherine Pugh (D), who will be sworn into office Tuesday , says she has wanted nothing more than to serve as Baltimore’s chief executive since taking a seat on the City Council in 1999.
Pugh, who went from the council to the state legislature and rose to Senate majority leader, is pledging to help close the gap between troubled parts of Charm City and those that have boomed with development and economic growth in recent years.
“I’m in my dream job, and this is where I want to be,” said the 66-year-old Philadelphia native, who moved to Baltimore in the 1970s to attend Morgan State University. “I’ll be here until this city becomes the greatest in America. This place has loved me, and I’m loving it back.”
A former high school cheerleader, Pugh became an avid runner in her mid-20s and spearheaded an effort to create the Baltimore Marathon in 2001. Colleagues describe her as soft-spoken in public but forceful behind closed doors, and they say she prepares tirelessly and pursues her goals relentlessly — like any distance runner should.
“One thing about her that can be good and bad is that when she sets her mind on a goal, nothing stops her from attaining it,” said state Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore). “It’s more or less using facts to support her position and the intonation in her voice that makes you think, ‘Damn, okay, that must be right.’ ”
Pugh helped usher police-accountability measures through the Senate this year, after Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died of injuries he suffered while in police custody. She also pushed legislation that would require employers to offer paid sick leave, an effort that prompted first lady Michelle Obama to invite Pugh to her box for President Obama’s final State of the Union address.
Pugh, who will be the 50th mayor of Baltimore, succeeds outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), who decided against running for reelection following the riots that erupted after Gray’s death.
While Rawlings-Blake has had a noticeably cool relationship with Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Pugh appears to be on good terms with him. The governor plans to deliver remarks at her inauguration next week.
Outside the legislature, Pugh’s experiences include running a clothing boutique and public-
relations firm, launching an African American newspaper, hosting a television talk show and authoring children’s books. She also established a design school for Baltimore students in grades 6 through 12 and created a program that raised money for children to participate in the arts.
None of her grandest ideas would have come to fruition, she says, without networking and connections.
“If you surround yourself with the right people and get them to buy in, you can get it done,” she said. “It’s about learning what’s around you, who’s around you.”
A few days before Thanksgiving, Pugh huddled with members of her transition team at Johns Hopkins University, brainstorming with experts from the school’s Center for Government Excellence and meeting with representatives from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which she hopes will invest more in the city.
During the campaign, she worked to gain the trust of community organizers and grass-roots activists, said Baltimore NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston, seeking their input on how to improve schools and housing and “get the crime and drug problem under control.”
“She went around talking to all the right people,” Hill-Aston said.
Pugh, who is divorced and has no children, lives in Ashburton, a neighborhood in northwest Baltimore. She beat 12 other candidates in a crowded Democratic primary, narrowly defeating second-place finisher and former mayor Sheila Dixon, who left office in 2010 as part of a plea agreement for an embezzlement conviction. Pugh easily won the general election, despite a write-in campaign launched by Dixon.
As mayor, Pugh says, she wants to expand Baltimore’s housing options without pushing out lower-income residents. She plans to clear blighted properties, promote more affordable housing in new residential developments and aggressively market some of the city’s middle- and working-class neighborhoods to real estate investors.
Pugh has avoided criticizing Rawlings-Blake and says she will retain several key members of Rawlings-Blake’s administration, including Police Chief Kevin Davis, who helped implement the department’s body-camera program and training for officers to respond to civil unrest, and city Health Commissioner Leana Wen, who has deployed new methods for fighting opioid addiction. She wants to increase neighborhood-watch programs and citizen patrols and include civilians on trial boards for police accused of misconduct.
The mayor-elect has also said she will push to assume greater local control of Baltimore’s public-school system, which has received increased state oversight — and funding — since 1997. Her bill to strip the governor of the power to appoint city school board members died in committee this year.
But allies say Pugh can be formidable in dealing with such roadblocks.
After she was elected to the Senate in 2007, she began pushing legislation to raise the compulsory school-attendance age from 16 to 18. Her bill failed at first, amid concern about the cost of keeping would-be dropouts in school and the impact on teacher shortages and crowded classrooms.
Pugh said the state had an obligation to pay for kids to attend school until they were old enough to graduate. She pressured the legislature to create a task force to recommend ways for schools to prepare themselves for such a change.
After the work group released its report, Pugh pushed the legislation again, this time rallying support from the Legislative Black Caucus and tweaking the plan so that it would be phased in over a number of years. The measure passed in 2012.
“She’s not a quitter,” said state Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore City). “She takes great pride in the things she does.”
Pugh doesn’t apologize for her determined approach.
“I always told the lobbyists, if I’ve got a bill on the floor, make sure you load up with everything you’ve got,” she said. “Because I’m coming to win and get my legislation done.”