Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, the city’s 50th mayor, says she is laser-focused on the job at hand.
“I love the work, I love the challenge,” said Pugh during a January 2019 phone interview as part of an Essence + Policy Link series on women mayors. Pugh is the third Black woman to consecutively hold the post in Baltimore. “But it takes commitment. I tell people I have no other desire to do anything but this work. I’m not looking to be anything but the mayor focused on rebuilding Baltimore and making it the greatest city in America.”
Pugh, 69, is a Pennsylvania native who arrived in Baltimore back in the 1970s to attend Morgan State University; she earned both an undergraduate degree and an MBA at the historically Black institution.
Adopting Baltimore and Maryland as her home, Pugh went on to hold public office in the City Council, and as a Delegate and State Senator in the Maryland General Assembly. Her background is extensive beyond politics: she is a former banker, business college dean, news editor, *author (see editorial note at end of article) and longtime entrepreneur, whose ventures have included co-owning a TV station and a consignment boutique.
A cheerleader during her college years, Pugh said she sees herself as a civic cheerleader in a predominately African-American metropolis (population about 611,000) that locals sometimes call ‘Charm City’ or simply `BMore.’ The latter nickname aptly describes what the mayor said is her mission: for residents to be more, do more, have more.
“I think Baltimore has great bones–the location, being strategically situated between Washington, D.C. and New York–the structure is here, and so now it’s about wrapping opportunity around the people who live here,” she said. “And bringing in more people who understand the more we lean in to help one another, the easier it is for us to bring in additional resources. Baltimore is ready for opportunities and investment.”
To that end, Pugh said she is pushing for job creation, neighborhood investment, public education and strategies to address poverty and reduce violent crime.
Baltimore’s annual homicide rate has hovered around 300 murders for the past several years. Pugh was sworn in as mayor in 2016, nine months after the April 2015 civil unrest that followed the police custody death of Freddie Gray. In 2017, a federal judge signed a consent decree between Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice aimed at reforming the city police department. Pugh recently nominated a new police commissioner (Michael S. Harrison was confirmed by the Baltimore City Council in March), after a revolving door of law enforcement top brass.
The stakes are high around public safety. “It requires a comprehensive, multifaceted approach and I continue to address [crime] on several different fronts – proposing legislative changes; increasing employment opportunities and social services for our residents,” said Pugh, “and calling for increased, definitive consequences for those convicted of serious and violent crimes.” The mayor also wants to upgrade the police department’s technology and aging facilities, and shift more officers from administrative functions to active street patrol.
Pugh has joined fellow elected officials, grass roots leaders and residents in Baltimore in calling for an end to the violence. One Saturday morning in February, she met with a group of African-American males in West Baltimore. The gathering incorporated a resource fair to assist with employment, substance abuse and mental health treatment, expungement of criminal records and more. “We had a good turnout,” said Pugh, who has created a mobile job unit to connect residents with potential employers. “And we continue to engage our community.”
For instance, to help address addiction issues, Pugh said the city secured millions in state and federal funds to establish its first-ever stabilization center for individuals using drugs or alcohol. Located in a site that had been vacant for decades, the center is staffed with health professionals and specialists. “It will provide comprehensive wraparound services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” the mayor said.
Also on the mayor’s agenda: uplifting children and young people. Her policy priorities include full day pre-K, expansion of early childhood education programs for all three and four-year-olds, and increasing school health and behavioral health funding. She’s made community college free for high school graduates, and has pushed local businesses to hire thousands of teens for summer jobs.
“My administration will continue to advocate… so that we can provide quality education in an environment befitting our most precious resource – our children.”
In 2018, Pugh organized buses to transport city youth to the student-led `March for Our Lives’ against gun violence in Washington D.C. In November 2018, she and local youth were guests on Steve Harvey’s talk show (his wife, Marjorie has mentored girls from Baltimore) and the topic was achievement. “We had a great time,” she said.
Mayor Pugh told Essence she is using her business background to foster economic development. She is eager to take advantage of Opportunity Zones, a community investment tool created by Congress in 2017 to connect private capital with low-income communities across America. So far, Pugh has created a new `Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund’ in Baltimore which would utilize city and private investment monies to support “a variety of revitalization activities.”
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Pugh wrote him a letter that she hand-delivered during a stop the then-president elect made in Baltimore. Noting that his campaign platform included a pledge to fix America’s inner cities and infrastructure, the mayor was hopeful the city she leads might benefit.
Asked if there has been direct follow-up from the White House, Pugh replied, “No, not much.” Still, she notes that Baltimore has received federal funds under the Trump Administration. They include a $35 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)–the agency now led by former Baltimore physician turned official, Dr. Ben Carson– to build affordable housing, as well as other monies. “Urban communities need those federal dollars,” said Pugh.
But Trump isn’t her focus, Baltimore is. The mayor, who is an avid runner, said she is passionate about the job and views it as a race to the finish.
“I’m not kicking the can down the road, I’m passionately working around the clock trying to fix things. I am doing all I can in the best interest of the people.”
*Editorial note: In the weeks since Pugh was interviewed for the Essence + Policy Link series, The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets have reported alleged ethics questions involving a children’s book series that the mayor authored and self-published. Reportedly, the books were purchased by the University of Maryland Medical System–where until recently Pugh held a board seat–for purported distribution to local schools; there are questions as to whether the business deal was fully disclosed. Pugh submitted her board resignation on March 18. In a statement to the media, the mayor described her board tenure as an “honor” but noted, “I have many other pressing concerns that require my full attention, energy and efforts.”