Democratic nominee for mayor Catherine Pugh visits the Mary Harvin Senior Center during a campaign stop. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
Everywhere state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh goes these days, people expect big things.
Kids in the schools she visits call her "the mayor." City Council members, desperate for change, approach her with ideas to reform the city. The senior citizens she meets at bingo say they're counting on her to address the blight and income inequality they see all around them.
Baltimore's poverty, crime and vacant houses are problems that have confounded many a mayor.But don't tell city residents that Pugh, the Democratic nominee for mayor, must first win office to address them.
As she walks down a street in East Baltimore on a sunny afternoon, a man honks a car horn and leans out the window. "Pugh!" he shouts. "We know you're going to turn this city around!" Pugh waves back.
"No pressure, right?" she observes.
Pugh, 66, has plans to reform Baltimore. Some are tweaks to current policy. Others are more radical changes.
She wants to assume mayoral control of the city's struggling public schools to make clear who is responsible. She wants to break up the city's housing operations into two agencies, one of which would focus on tearing down vacants.
She will seek to put civilians on trial boards that recommend how to discipline police officers accused of misconduct. And she plans to ensure Baltimore's majority black population is getting its fair share of city contracts.
But first, Pugh has to do something many assume she's already done: win the mayor's race.
In deeply Democratic Baltimore, Pugh has been running against Republican Alan Walden and Green Party candidate Joshua Harris in the general election. Then last week an old rival, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, entered the race as a write-in candidate. Pugh narrowly defeated Dixon in April's Democratic primary.
Pugh has declined to address Dixon's decision to resume her campaign. Since winning in April, Pugh has run a low-key but busy campaign. Her schedule is often packed with events, including visiting schools in some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods and giving the keynote address at conventions for business executives.
"I don't care who is running," Pugh said. "We are campaigning every single day. We are on the phone every day. Every day, we are out canvassing."
Dixon's entry could cause the state senator to run a more visible campaign, said Nina Therese Kasniunas, an assistant professor of political science at Goucher College.
Kasniunas notes that after winning the primary, Pugh has been reluctant to weigh in on controversial issues, such as a $660 million public financing deal for the Port Covington development. She is fond of saying "One mayor at a time" — an indication that she won't second-guess current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
"She has been noticeably absent," Kasniunas said of Pugh.
While she hasn't held large campaign rallies or aired commercials since the primary, Pugh been building her administration and crafting policy plans.
She has assembled a transition team that includes former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, Del. Peter Hammen and former city schools interim CEO Tisha Edwards.
She's visited former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to discuss improving Baltimore by building better housing and reducing homicides, among other ideas.
"She is a hard-working, competent, bright person," Smith said of Pugh. "She knows the neighborhoods of Baltimore intimately. She has a vision to bring those neighborhoods back."
Pugh's experience is as vast as it is varied. She helped launch both the Baltimore Design School and the Baltimore Running Festival. She has been a banker, a journalist, a publisher, head of a public relations firm, a dean and a small-business owner.
She wants to restore former Mayor Martin O'Malley's tradition of holding open office hours for City Council members. Pugh said some of her best ideas were launched from those conversations — including starting the marathon.
"I said, 'The city needs its own marathon,'" recalled Pugh, an avid runner. "He said 'OK' — but didn't offer to pay for it.
"Not a nickel, not a dime. It became up to you to figure out how to do it," she said. "I sat down with the law department and said, 'We're going to write a contract. We're going to put it out to bid.'"
Last weekend, the Baltimore Running Festival was held for the 16th time.
The idea to start a design school came after Pugh visited a fashion high school in New York. "I wanted to have a special school for people with this kind of creativity," she said.
On a recent visit to the design school,a public middle and high school in East Baltimore, children flocked to Pugh. They posed for selfies with her. She visited every classroom in the refurbished warehouse, assuring students they have bright futures.
Pugh, who lives in West Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood, says she wants to promote economic opportunity for African-Americans, a point she stressed while speaking to business leaders gathered under a giant chandelier at Martin's West in Baltimore County.
As the keynote speaker at the University of Maryland Medical System'ssupplier diversity fair, Pugh recalled white businesses flourishing and black businesses struggling when she arrived in Baltimore in the late 1960s.
"Unbeknownst to me was the negative perception that not only people in the [white] community had, but people in their own communities had," Pugh said. "I became very concerned about how do we shape and change the image, so that people understand that inside our communities we have the capacity to be good board members and business partners."
After becoming CEO of a public relations firm, Pugh authored a series of supplements for The Baltimore Sun that celebrated the achievements of black Americans in the fields of business, health, arts and entertainment. Eventually, she realized, she needed to get involved in politics to have a bigger impact.
"I watched African-American businesses struggle for years trying to get a leg in the door, a foot in the door," she says. "It's all about the politics."
After winning seats on the City Council and then in the state Senate, Pugh joined the boards of influential organizations, including the University of Maryland Medical System. There, she pressed the hospital to open up its pension system investments to more black-owned firms. Investments in minority-owned businesses have since risen from $300 million to $5 billion, she said.
Pugh supporter Billy Murphy, a well-known lawyer and former judge, said it is unfortunate that many African-Americans believe Dixon has a stronger record of supporting black communities. Dixon won 170 of 200 predominantly black precincts during the primary election.
"In every major economic project that has come down the line, she's been one of the leading voices for minority inclusion," Murphy said of Pugh. He said Pugh's aspirations for the city "dwarfed the goals of Sheila Dixon."
Indeed, Pugh said she plans to change how City Hall approaches serious issues facing Baltimore, including economic development and policing.
Although she has publicly backed Commissioner Kevin Davis, she takes issue with how the Police Department has approached some situations — most notably thedecision to send officers in riot gear to the public mourning of rapper Lor Scoota's death in West Baltimore.
She believes too many white people accept bigoted stereotypes of African-Americans.
"Would they have responded that way in Fells Point or Federal Hill?" Pugh asks.
Since April, Pugh has made it a point to shore up support among Democrats, some of whom backed Dixon in the primary. On a recent Thursday, she spent the morning with West Baltimore City Council nominee Leon Pinkett, ate lunch with council Vice President Ed Reisinger and participated in an evening fundraiser for Northeast Baltimore City Council nominee Ryan Dorsey. Much of the current City Council has endorsed her candidacy.
Reisinger said he sees in Pugh echoes of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, her onetime boss. He believes city government will operate more efficiently under Pugh, and Baltimoreans should expect positive change.
"She's from the Schaefer days of 'Let's do it,'" said Reisinger, who backed Dixon in the primary.
Pugh recognizes the high expectations. She hopes citizens have patience as she tries to tackle issues that have persisted for decades.