BY JEANETTE LENOIR
Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police officers in April 2015 unquestionably had an impact on the city’s image. Nonetheless, Catherine E. Pugh, the Charm City’s 50th mayor and 3rd consecutive female at the helm, says there’s much more than what meets the eye and enough spirit to debunk any perceptions one may have of Baltimore. “We’re the 9th city in America considered by millennials to be the great city that people should move to. I think Freddie Gray had its impact but certainly not the greatest impact in terms of what Baltimore is today.”
Pugh is proud of her role as the city’s leader, a place she’s very comfortable occupying as a highly successful business owner herself. “It was something I desired but it was certainly not something I thought was in my reach at this particular point in history in my own life because I was Majority Leader of the Senate and doing an important job on behalf of the citizens of Baltimore. So, I was very focused on making sure that I created and passed legislation that would have a tremendous impact on our city and in the state, and hopefully lead in terms of some of the innovative legislation that would pass in the nation.”
During her first State of the City Address, Pugh made her mission to continue improving the quality of life for Baltimore citizens clear by rolling out her plan on five major areas her administration will pay close attention to; Education, Youth Development, Public Safety, Economic and Workforce Development, and Expansion. And, the mayor leads by example. A rare form to see in modern day American politics. However, taking into account her own life’s journey, healthy lifestyle and the work she’s done for her community during her years in public service, it’s not hard to surmise that Mayor Pugh’s heart, along with her vision, expertise and blueprint to bring Baltimore out of the shadows of Freddie Gray and beyond, is a welcome trajectory for a city desperately in need of reconditioning.
“When I think of my entire vision for Baltimore, it’s not centered around Freddie Gray. It’s centered on a city that’s been neglected for decades in certain parts of the city. It’s also centered around the vision for being more inclusive and diverse in a city that has so many opportunities and has created opportunities for so many, but had neglected others. And, my vision is about housing and homelessness, and how do you reduce violence but at the same time, create public schools that everyone would want to come to, and so we see that happening in our city.” Even so, Pugh says Freddie Gray played an important role in terms of how the city looks at its police department. “I see it as something that occurred in our history that made us pay attention to community policing and how we go about the business of reforming our police and creating relationships between the police and community that would bode well for how we move forward and resolve our criminal activity in our communities.”
Pugh says her work to help reform the criminal justice system—a system marred by vast racial disparities—happened before Freddie Gray. “For me it began back in the Legislature when the Ferguson situation occurred and when you think about New Orleans and the issues that they face and other cities faced around the country…I think it made all of us pay attention to criminal justice reform. Pointing to former President Obama’s work to reform police departments and improve community policing, Pugh says, “Those things occurred before Freddie Gray. Freddie Gray was a wake-up call for our own police department but certainly not the wake-up call for the entire city in terms of all the issues that the city faces.”
Criminal justice reform is “absolutely necessary” she emphasizes, adding that the city is currently under a Department of Justice consent decree following a resolution adopted by the city, aimed at controlling the rapid growth in gun violence and to get guns of the streets. Pugh along with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis are behind the new city ordinance that would impose a one-year minimum sentence for carrying an illegal firearm in Baltimore, essentially treating illegal guns like a public health crisis. “I thought it was important to get that done because of the situation that happened with Freddie Gray.”
Nevertheless, and despite the city’s crime rate—Forbes Magazine ranks Baltimore #7 on The 10 Most Dangerous U.S. Cities list—Attorney General Jeff Sessions objected to the city adopting the consent decree that also seeks to address rampant racial discrimination and constitutional violations among police officers against residents. U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar overruled his attempt to block the agreement. Pugh says, “We thought it was important that we move forward with the consent decree and so we’re just about finished with that process. The Federal Judge did sign the consent decree so, we’re well on our way of doing what’s important for the City of Baltimore.”
Pugh says despite Sessions suggestions and agenda for Baltimore and the rest of the country, DOJ has been helpful in facilitating the consent decree process. “In terms of providing us with consultants to review our own police department, providing us with resources…every federal agency is engaged here.” In addition to the assistance the city is receiving, a new ATF site is being designated to help enforce the agreement. “Our federal partners have been very helpful to us.”
Another positive and measurable move for the city deals with its beleaguered school system. The mayor says the city has worked out a deal to repay the $1 billion in bonds the school system needs to improve its crumbling schools and build 23 new ones, (the state, city and school system each pledged $20 million a year over 30 years). “We just opened up another one recently and built the first new school in the public school system in 30 years. So, I know the possibilities, I know of some of the pitfalls but at the same time, I see through all of this as an opportunity to change the trajectory of the city based on its people, its population and its opportunities.” She says government does two things, “it provides services and it creates opportunities.” Pugh goes on to explain that the difference with her administration is inclusion. “What we’ve done is not included everybody in the process in the past.”
Baltimore’s economy and the $15 minimum wage increase proposal, a focus point for Pugh’s administration, came up for a vote back in March but was vetoed by the mayor. The minimum wage hike was a bill she supported at the state level before taking control as Baltimore’s Mayor. And, naturally, the mayor’s veto was met with some opposition from critics who accused her of breaking her promise to support the bill, to which she says, “I was a big proponent at the state level. We raised the minimum wage in 2014, we raised the minimum wage in 2015, we raised the minimum wage in 2016, we raised the minimum wage in 2017, we’ll raise the minimum wage again in 2018. So, the next time the minimum wage should be taken up is in this General Assembly session.”
She adds the bill was moving along the same lines as previous wage increases, “and, so it really picked up from where we already were and went to 2027. I would hope that anybody who is living today, making less than minimum wage, would make more than $15 an hour in 2027. So, to have a bill that projects to 2027 was to me inappropriate for the citizens of Baltimore, especially when the surrounding jurisdictions weren’t pushing that because it made Baltimore the hole in the donut. And, we got to be competitive with our surrounding jurisdictions.” Pugh says her decision to veto the bill was based on the best interest of all the people of Baltimore, adding that she will follow the state’s lead in a gradual and sustainable increase of wages. Her supporters, according to local media outlets, credit her for making the tough decision, saying that it showed real leadership in a time of transition, growth and future jobs.
Another social strife impacting Baltimore and the nation, and budding an all too familiar climate across the country centers on the take down of Confederate monuments and an uptick in neo-Nazi, KKK and alt-Right led demonstrations. Following the violent unrest in Charlottesville, VA the mayor took immediate action to circumvent any possible violence in her own city by taking down four Confederate monuments. A move the previous administration had taken up but didn’t complete. Pugh says the monuments were taken down under the cover of darkness and in the best interest of the city. “We had four statues that needed to be removed, three of them Confederate statues, and one of the judge who presided over the case that said that African Americans specifically were not full human-beings, and so we thought that his statue should be removed as well, (Chief Justice, Roger Brooke Taney, who oversaw the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision). My plan and meeting with my contractor was that we should move them as quickly and as quietly as possible.”
Pugh says her decision to act quickly and under the cover of darkness was intentional and based on sound information. After meeting with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu about the process he followed to remove his city’s four Confederate monuments back in May, Pugh decided to take a different route. “He told me about all the hate mail and everything that he had received, how contentious it was and what a painful experience it was for his staff, and I decided then that we would not do it that way.” Pugh says her experience working in news rooms and being in the news business for a long time allowed her to act strategically to avoid any media coverage. “I knew that news rooms closed up at 11:30…people would not be around and so it would be very difficult for people to begin reporting as we began moving.” Pugh says the process to take down all the monuments was estimated to take between midnight and 5:00 a.m. “We were finished at 4:57 a.m. and the media caught up with us around 3:30 when we were on our 3rd statue.”
What becomes of the statues is yet to be determined however, Pugh says her administration has appointed a commission to look at the issue and even taking suggestions from citizens. She says the monuments could be placed at Confederate cemeteries and museums across the country. “This is the United States of America and according to the Constitution we are all equal. And, in the Bible we’re all equal in the eyes of God and we should be treated as such. And so, any symbolism of hate I think should be removed but I think at the same time we shouldn’t rewrite history. I think that they should be contextualized in such a way that we remember who they are and why they existed because they are part of our history, but we’re not the Confederacy. We are the United States of America.”
She says her advice to everyone, especially young people is, “We have to learn how to love and respect each other, and that we work together, we learn to be more inclusive and diverse because that’s what this country is becoming; more inclusive and more diverse.”
An avid runner and healthy lifestyle advocate, Pugh stresses the importance of taking responsibility of your health and incorporating a healthy diet as part of a well-balanced life; a message she consistently shares with young people. Referencing another Bible scripture, Pugh says, “Moses lived to be 120 years old and it says you couldn’t tell how old he was by his face or his energy and that’s because he lived a purposeful life. If you want to live a purposeful life than you have to take care of yourself. You got to make sure you’re exercising and eating right.” If it wasn’t for public records, one would be hard pressed to guess the mayor’s age as well.
Pugh founded The Baltimore Marathon 17 years ago with 6,600 registered runners, “today its 25,000 plus,” she says. “It’s a very hard marathon to get into but we just encourage people to exercise and eat right. Do what’s best for you because without your health, there’s nothing.”
How does she do it all during a tumultuous time in the country’s history when race relations, police brutality, living wage concerns and numerous other social woes are rolling down a steep hill towards her and picking up speed? She says, “You lead by example, and that’s what we try to do every day.” Pugh says, despite the uphill battle she faces as she leads Baltimore out from the stigma of the Freddie Gray incident, she still pinches herself every day that she gets to do this work. “It’s a lot of work but at the same time; with challenges, we get opportunities.”
It’s clear to see—from the construction projects, new restaurant openings and community investments and enrichment programs—Baltimore is ready for some much-needed opportunities, particularly on the heels of its many surfaced challenges partly exposed by a tragic police brutality incident.