State Sen. Catherine Pugh on Community Policing, Property Taxes, and Her Run for Mayor

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Though a native of Pennsylvania, state Sen. Catherine Pugh has been living in Baltimore since 1969, and she’s long since made her mark on the community. She founded Baltimore’s first African American business newspaper in 1979. As a city councilwoman, she pounded the pavement for the first Baltimore Marathon in 2001. As a delegate and state senator she has championed minimum wage increases and marriage equality.

When Pugh ran for mayor of Baltimore last election cycle, she advocated community-oriented policing, lead poisoning awareness, “community-driven” development, and greater recreational opportunities for Baltimore’s youth. She argued for an holistic approach to combating violent crime, police brutality, and inequality in the city. Since then, Baltimore’s (as well as other cities’) struggles with those issues have made them central topics in the national political conversation.

With Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s decision not to seek re-election, Pugh may have a greater opportunity to make her case to the electorate this time. The candidate recently answered our questions about her current bid to lead the city and how she will distinguish herself in a crowded Democratic primary.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Have you seen the public come around to your point of view on the importance of addressing lead poisoning, community-police relations, and community-driven development in the past five years?

Sen. Catherine Pugh: I am currently co-chairing the State Policing Commission, and many of the issues around community policing that I raised previously are still issues today. In fact, they have become national issues. Even President Obama launched an effort to improve community policing. The establishment of the state policing commission was indirectly related to the Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore but is also a response to the issues of community-police relations around the state.

Among the concerns is recruiting police officers to live in the areas they serve and increasing diversity among police forces in communities of color as well as the need for cultural diversity training. Similar to what I discussed in 2011, police walking our neighborhoods and getting to know the residents they serve is an approach that both the current police commissioner and the commission agree we should adopt.

Currently less than 25 percent of our police officers live in our city. The mayor implemented incentives for first responders to live in our city and buy homes. However, the average police officer leaving the academy at 21 years of age is probably not prepared to buy a home. I have begun discussions with the real estate community to offer incentives for police officers to rent property in our city. This would create more of a presence of police officers in the city. They would not just be the police officer working the city, but your neighbor and friend who lives in your neighborhood and in the city. This would also allow police officers to drive their police cars home to the neighborhoods they live, which would improve public safety.

When I was on city council I asked the city to light up the neighborhoods because they are too dark. Today they are still too dark, and lighting our neighborhoods will help to improve public safety and improve the quality of life in our city.

There has been a focus on lead-paint poisoning, and we have provided for lead-paint treatment expansion and funding. More federal dollars have been allocated, and a few years ago I held up the state’s budget until the city agreed to address lead-paint issues in local housing projects.

Community-driven development has slowly progressed in our city but not to the extent needed. Even when we close schools in our city we do it without repurposing the buildings and with little regard for the impact closing schools have on a neighborhood. This is an area as mayor I would continue to focus on to get developers to understand the need to be more inclusive in their development.

The Vacants to Value program established by Mayor Rawlings-Blake is an effort that I would expand upon. I would include providing dollar-housing opportunities and low-interest loans for community residents to live in and grow those communities where blocks of boarded up houses exist. I would also create special taxing districts in those communities where over a period of time (15 years) individuals participating in the dollar-house program would pay a fixed property tax rate as low as $500-$1000 a year (TBD), by the Property Tax Reduction Commission that I will establish.

The Property Tax Reduction Commission will be charged with the task of finding ways to reduce our property tax. One of my suggestions to the commission will be to look at all the  TIF [Tax-Increment Financing] Projects over the years that will come back on line and begin to pay taxes and to have those funds directed to property-tax reduction rather than to the city’s general fund. In an effort to be competitive the city must grow its population and reduce property taxes.

BFB: How has your own view of these issues evolved?

CP: I believe the issues today are very much the same as five years ago. Some of the issues have become more pronounced. I’ve also seen the public come around to my views, whether it is the city council or Mayor trying to find ways to provide recreation facilities for our young people or our city delegation focusing on bringing more dollars back to the city for building new schools. I orchestrated the building of the first new school in Baltimore City in 30 years, the Baltimore Design School, which is a public 6-12 grade school. This was a public-private partnership that created a board of directors that help infuse dollars into the school to assure that the needs of the students are met.

I believe every public school should have a board of directors that does not interfere with the daily operation of the school but provides resources for the school to assure that the students’ needs are met. I’ve been heavily involved in the Baltimore Design School and education and currently believe that we must take control of our school system. The state partnership that was developed under Mayor [Kurt] Schmoke led to millions of dollars being given by the state over a five-year period. This was much needed. But it gave partial responsibility of our schools to the state, allowing the state to make appointments to our school board. That partnership needs to be evaluated, and Baltimore needs to take control of its schools.

Once we create more transparency in city government through audits and accountability we will evaluate our funding and allocations to assure that we are directing our resources where they are most needed. Education and public safety will be high priorities in my administration. Our schools must prepare our students for both careers and college. I will promote the expansion of Judy Centers that begin an education process for our children as early as six weeks. This will help to prepare our students to be more competitive and to learn.

BFB: What’s different this time around?

CP: What is different this time for my campaign, is that the city is not controlled by any singular political group. And with the current mayor not running, it gives an opportunity for my message to be heard more clearly. People want real leadership. I have stayed on course and focused on improving our city and state and country.

In my district alone over the last five years I have distributed over a million dollars in scholarship money by leading my district and getting us all to work together to maximize our resources. We have also collectively brought back over a million dollars for community projects by combining our resources for local projects, from helping to build a skateboard park to fixing up a community learning center.

BFB: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?

CP: The best piece of advice I’ve been given is to stay focused, because I have always focused on improving my community and the people who live in, work in, and visit our city.

I have passed over 150 pieces of legislation, from moving the compulsory attendance age to 18 — thereby given our children a greater opportunity to be successful — to diversifying our state’s pension portfolio to allow for maximum participation by minorities and women. I have always championed the rights of workers to be paid fairly and treated with respect and dignity. I have led the fight for paid sick leave and workers’ rights.

BFB: What’s the worst?

CP: The worse advice I’ve ever been given is stay where you are. My response has been if I had taken that advice I wouldn’t be where I am today. Leadership requires us to stand up for what we believe and to fight for the rights of people in order to make progress for all people. I believe when we lift the least of us we lift all of us.

BFB: What’s one experience from your past that best prepared you to be mayor?

CP: I have had several experiences that have prepared me to be a great Mayor for Baltimore City. I came to Baltimore as a teenager, graduated from Morgan State University with a Masters Degree in Business. I began my career as a banker, went on to be a business developer under Sam Daniels at the Council for Equal Business Opportunities where we grew small businesses across the city.

I worked for Mayor William Donald Schaefer, where as director of the Citizens Involvement Program I started neighborhood-watch and operation-identification programs working closely with the Police Department. My job was to make people feel safe about our city. I went on to become dean and director of Strayer Business College, where I trained and prepared mostly women on welfare or distressed to re-enter the workforce. I assisted them in getting jobs. I taught business, marketing, and communications at Morgan State University. I was vice president of Brunson Communications where I helped run nine radio stations and establish the largest UHF station on the East Coast, WGTW-TV 48.

I worked diligently to bridge the gap between blacks and whites in this city by helping to start community programs like Help United Baltimore (HUB) and the President’s Roundtable. I created a publication, African American News and World Report, to present a positive image of the African American community. I was a special editor for the Sunpapers for six years where I created separate supplements (up to four a year, again focusing on bridging the gap between blacks and whites in Baltimore), e.g. Blacks in Business, Blacks in Health, Black Professionals, Blacks in Arts and Entertainment. I established the Henry G. Parks Award to highlight two individuals a year, one black and one white, who demonstrated that working together we could improve our community. The first awards went to Randy Evans and Ray Haysbert. I have served on over 20 public boards in our city in effort to help improve our city.

I served on the city council, as a state delegate, and currently as a state senator. I also serve as the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Executive Committee of the Council of State Governments, and the National Council of State Legislators.

I was invited by President Obama to sit with the first lady at the State of the Union address this year, because of the work I have done at the state level and nationally. I believe that all of these experiences both in the private and public sector have prepared me to lead our city.

BFB: This race has a lot of candidates. How do you plan to stand out from a dozen rivals?

CP: I believe that what distinguishes me from the current field of candidates for mayor is my depth of experience in both the public and private sector. My ability to bring people together across all sections of this city is an attribute that also distinguishes me. I have spent time meeting with community leaders, businesses leaders, and individuals, and everyone has said the same thing: they want a leader such as myself who can make decisions and, more importantly, bring us all together and get us focused on working together to grow and improve our city.

As a city councilwoman I led the public-private effort that created the Fish Out of Water project that raised a million dollars and provided instruments for our children in our public school and helped wire our classrooms.

I also created the Baltimore Marathon 15 years ago that still has an annual $40 million impact on our city, having grown from 6,600 people to almost 25,000 people from all across our country and several other nations.

It was my leadership and vision that built the first new school in Baltimore in 30 years, the Baltimore Design School, a public school.

I have demonstrated leadership, creativity, and the ability to get things done over my years as a public servant, business person, and community leader.

BFB: The unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral showed mayoral leadership includes the ability to navigate a crisis. What is the most important thing for a mayor to do in that situation?

CP: The most important thing for a mayor to do in the case of situations like the Freddie Gray case is to demonstrate leadership. First you must communicate to all your constituents. Leadership means showing the community you care and you are in control. To appear strong and present in the community so that you could bring about the calm that was so badly needed. What I did was when I saw there was a void in communicating with the community I immediately made my presence known. I went to the local television station when I learned that the children were released from Douglass with no direction and asked them to allow me to ask the parents to come get their children.

Every day and night that ensued I stayed present in the community. I was even allowed to go behind police lines at night as curfews neared and get on the bullhorn and ask the people to go home. I talked with the television stations and asked them to turn off their lights and cameras and back off and I assured them if they did that the community would leave and they did.

BFB: What would you have done differently if you were mayor on April 27?

CP: It is easier to Monday morning quarterback a situation that has already occurred and obviously was not handled in the best way. However, let me suggest that in circumstances like this it is leadership’s responsibility to anticipate any circumstance and to be prepared to respond to whatever the possibilities or outcomes might be.

Understanding the mood of the country with the tragedies that had occurred with the police involved shootings and custodial care by officers ending in the death of people of color, I would have held a meeting with state and city leaders and developed a strategy to prepare for the crowds that showed up in other cities for similar circumstances.

I would have sought input from the governor and police commissioner. I would have called together the faith community, and community and business leaders, to let them know that the goal of our administration would be to protect our community. I would have asked for the help of the governor and surrounding jurisdictions to keep peace in our streets.

I would have met with our education system to determine how we would handle school attendance and closing. I would have asked faculty to develop lessons that would provide teachable lessons for our children. I would also have met with local media to let them know that I needed their help in communicating the proper message to the public.

Again, situations such as what we recently experienced in Baltimore with the Freddie Gray case calls for open and honest communications by the mayor with the community with the goal of keeping everyone informed while encouraging them to be in solidarity with moving our community forward.


This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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