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Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh Talks Breaking Barriers

Pugh is the first African-American in the Maryland General Assembly to be the majority leader of the Senate.

Credit: Mayor Catherine Pug

HThis Women’s History Month, we recognize Black women in politics who have made history, broken barriers and shattered glass ceilings. One of those women is Catherine Pugh, the mayor of Baltimore. She was the first African-American in the Maryland General Assembly to be the majority leader of the Senate. And she’s the third consecutive Black female mayor of Baltimore. Before her career in politics Pugh owned and operated a newspaper, a public relations firm and hosted her own talk show. She also started the Baltimore marathon. Catherine Pugh is a history maker.

Before you entered politics you were a media professional owning your own PR firm, serving as an editor for the Baltimore Sun and even hosting your own program. What made you decide to pivot from the media business to politics?

I got into the knowledge of politics because I became a fundraiser for local candidates like Kweisi Mfume when he ran for Congress. I was doing television in Philadelphia and someone told me there’s a city council seat available in your district. They asked who are you going to raise money for, and I decided then that I could raise it for myself. So, I raised it, I ran, I won and I served five years on the council. So that’s what pivoted me to the other side of politics, not fundraising but the political side itself.  People considered me very grassroots back in the day when I owned my own paper, there were a lot of people who knew me because of the publication, but also the work. I tell people I’ve done a little bit of everything. I had such a variety of experience whether it was being a business owner, to teaching the college and university level, to promoting and marketing small businesses.

You are Baltimore’s third consecutive Black and female mayor, a rare occurence in a major U.S. city. On a daily basis how does that feel?

In the Maryland General Assembly, I was the first African-American majority leader in the Senate. So, I had the experience of being an African-American woman in leadership, and learned basically how to deal with Republicans and Democrats and all people. So for me in this particular role, I see myself as someone who is just well experienced based on all of the opportunities I’ve had in my lifetime. Whether it’s running a newspaper, running a business college, starting an organization, interacting with politicians, raising money, or being majority leader of the senate. For me everyday, is a culmination of all these experiences that I’ve had. So I think Baltimore to have chosen their third African-American female mayor is a positive thing. My experience in working with African-American females is that they work hard, they work smart and that’s not to say our other colleagues don’t. But this role for me is about how I serve best all of the citizens of our city.            

The city of Baltimore is suing agrochemical giant Monsanto accusing them of polluting city waterways and stormwater. Monsanto says it believes that Baltimore’s complaint is without merit. The company stopped producing PCBs more than 40 years ago. What role is your administration playing in this suit?

We filed suit. The city solicitor is the lead council in the suit against Monsanto. We look forward to the outcome. We know that many of our children in our city have been lead paint poisoned. So this is something that we continue to be concerned about. It is as big a issue for us in Baltimore as becoming the city with the most opportunities zones in the nation. We try to stay on top of these issues, we try to learn as much as we can.   

Soon to be confirmed police chief Michael Harrison has been tapped by you to lead the Baltimore Police Department. He will be the 4th police chief since you took office. What are your expectations this time around?

He’s not the fourth police chief since I took office. Mr. Davis who was here when I got here. We let (him) go in 2017, because we spiked in crime at the highest level ever in the city at 343. I put in place DeSouza who left in May and so we just had an interim in his place, so we’ve not appointed another police chief since DeSouza. So this will be third police chief and that will be Michael Harrison. He embodies everything that is needed when you talk about reform in the consent decree. He left New Orleans having gotten his city through almost 90 percent of its own consent decree. He’s left New Orleans having experienced the greatest reduction in homicides in his city in almost 40 years. He’s leaving New Orleans having reformed a police department similar to what needs to take place here. His community has given him about a 70 percent satisfaction. Where he walked in at a 12 or a 17. Michael Harrison is going to hopefully do for Baltimore what he did for New Orleans.

You are a noted fitness enthusiast and marathon runner. How do you incorporate health and wellness into your busy schedule as mayor?

My day starts about 4:30 a.m. in the morning, which is when I take a run or I jump rope, or I ride my bike, whatever I need to do to get my heartrate up and get excited about my day. I started the Baltimore marathon, it will be 19 years this year. I felt that the city needed its own marathon. It started out 6,600 people, today its at 24-25,000 plus.    

In the vein of Women’s History Month who is your role model or a woman you admire and why?

My mother. My mother is my greatest role model. She was a woman of courage, she had seven children, she taught us that we could be anything that we wanted to be if we worked hard enough at it. My mother was a model of leadership for her family. The other one would be Dorothy Brunson, who was the first African American female to own a television station. Tremendous business woman, a great role model and someone whose story needs to be told.  

For Women’s History Month EBONY is highlighting those women who are defying the odds. Check out last week’s piece on Andrea Stewart-Cousins and be on the look out for more.

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