Like most major American metropolitan areas, Baltimore has its share of obstacles and woes: rampant crime, a soaring homicide rate, a struggling schools system, police-community tensions, frayed race relations, population loss, just to name a few.
But Catherine E. Pugh, who was sworn in as Baltimore’s 50th mayor on Dec. 12, 2016, remains optimistic and believes she and her administration are up to the challenge.
A native of Norristown, Pa., who grew up in Philadelphia, Pugh, 67, is Baltimore’s third consecutive female mayor. Previously, she served on the Baltimore City Council from 1999-2005, the House of Delegates from 2005-2007, and was elected to the State Senate in 2007.
Jmore recently spoke with Pugh, a Democrat and resident of the Ashburton neighborhood.
Jmore: How would you characterize your tenure so far?
Pugh: I’m a focused mayor. I want to see a transformation taking place in neighborhoods, in downtown communities, providing job opportunities to get unemployed people working. I’m a mayor concerned about every neighborhood and every person in it. I want to bring about the changes that are needed, to be inclusive and diverse in the services the city provides and the opportunities it offers every day, whether it is fixing the water system, expanding small businesses, providing contracts for services, cleaning the parks or expanding technology.
Why did you want to be mayor?
I ran for mayor once before, after I had been a City Council member for five years. I realized then and now that the role of the mayor is to be a visionary for the city, not just for the moment in which you serve but what your city looks like, how your city is responded to and what image you want your city to project. As one who has been a business person, a marketing person, a faculty member, a dean and director of a college of business, I really felt that the city needed a person with the leadership skills that could help change the image of our city that was being projected around the nation.
More importantly, a person who would carve out the role of a city that was more inclusive and more diverse. I thought that my skill set and everything I had done up to this moment had prepared me to be the leader of this city, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Since taking office, what has surprised you?
If there was anything that was not known in advance, it was the deficit of the school system, a $130 million structural deficit. What was surprising was the lack of knowledge of how the school system was structured financially. There’s a misconception that the city of Baltimore doesn’t give enough to the school system. The city’s school budget is $1.4 billion to operate, which comes from Annapolis, and the city’s operating budget is $2.8 billion. Out of our operating budget, we give an additional $300-$400 million to the school system.
Every day is challenging in the sense that there are issues I wasn’t aware of. For example, the consent decree [to institute sweeping reforms in the Baltimore Police Department] will cost us millions of dollars. It has required me to look for federal assistance and to create a document that was acceptable to the Department of Justice. What was really good was to recognize that we had leadership in this city that was able to do in less than 60 days what other cities took 12 or 14 months to do. We crafted a document that was not only credible but also accepted by the community and by the Department of Justice.
What are you doing to reduce the homicide and crime rates?
I’m working every day with our police commissioner [Kevin Davis]. We are looking at the best police practices around the country to take control of our street corners, neighborhoods and communities.
We have learned that criminal activity continues to increase on weekends, so we are working to create a different kind of shift. We want to have more officers working on weekends, not as overtime but as a new way to deploy them — a work week of four days on and three days off.
We know our police officers must become more visible in the communities, walking the neighborhoods. We’re seeing that happen more and more. They are creating a police presence in neighborhoods, developing more community relationships. We want people to feel more that they are part of the crime-solving solution, that they can communicate with their police officers, that they can share information that before they have not felt they could share.
How are you working with the Jewish community to build a better Baltimore?
We are continuing to work with The Associated [Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore] and other Jewish organizations up in Park Heights and the Pimlico area. The Weinberg Foundation has come to the aid of the city on many occasions, including helping the homeless, and they are engaged in the “Shark Tank” [youth entrepreneurial competition] as well. The “Shark Tank” for young people will enable them to create their own businesses this summer. Maybe they want to be in the lawn-mowing business, maybe in technology.
On a personal note, I’ve been to Israel twice, first at the invitation of The Associated and then at the request of a group of rabbis who wanted to pray for me after I didn’t win [the 2011 mayoral race]. They said to me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. They did pray for me and the city, and I am forever grateful to them for their continuing prayers for our community.
Why should residents of Baltimore’s suburbs care about the city?
Everyone in the state should care about Baltimore. We are the tourism capital of the state, the convention center of the state. The image of the city is important to the state of Maryland. If Baltimore doesn’t have a great image, neither does the state.
What attacks Baltimore will attack other jurisdictions. When it comes to drug addiction, opioid addiction and homelessness, there is no such thing as isolation. If there’s a problem here, there are going to be problems elsewhere. The county executives of the three counties around us know this, and they are helpful as we face these problems together.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.
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