Baltimore Democratic mayoral candidate Catherine E. Pugh defeats write-in candidate and former mayor Sheila Dixon to become the 50th mayor of the city of Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun video)
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh was elected Baltimore's mayor by an overwhelming margin Tuesday. The Democrat will lead a city that is enjoying a development boom in some areas but suffering from a shocking level of violence and persistent poverty in others.
Pugh beat back a spirited write-in challenge from Sheila Dixon, the former mayor who finished a close second in April's Democratic primary. In a city where most voters are Democrats, Pugh easily outdistanced Green Party candidate Joshua Harris and Republican Alan Walden.
Pugh captured a majority of votes in Baltimore, but tens of thousands chose to write in Dixon's name.
Pugh will become the 50th mayor of Baltimore and the third consecutive woman elected to the job. She will be under pressure right away to unite the city and fix its systemic problems, political analysts and residents said.
At the downtown Radisson Hotel on Tuesday evening, Pugh declared victory as she addressed supporters. She was introduced by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and surrounded by other Democrats from around the region.
"We all have a responsibility to make this the greatest city in America," she said. "And I'm telling you I will work day and night on behalf of all the citizens of this city, but I need you to work with me."
Dixon addressed supporters shortly after the first official results were posted Tuesday evening. They showed all write-in candidates trailing far behind Pugh, but Dixon declined to concede.
"I am not going to stop until I see every vote that's been counted," Dixon said. The former mayor said that whatever happens, her supporters made a difference by helping her run the last-ditch write-in campaign.
"You can't just look at the vote, you have to look at the energy you felt in the communities," Dixon said.
Pugh will go to work with a new-look City Council. Eight new members were elected Tuesday, and they've promised to push a more progressive agenda than their predecessors.
Among Pugh's early challenges will be uniting the city, said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs.
"There must be a knitting together of different constituencies; that's going to be the big job of the new mayor," Hartley said. "Right now, there appears to be a fracture: the Inner Harbor versus the rest of the city, and that has to be healed really quickly."
Charles D. Ellison, host of "The Ellison Report" on WEAA radio, agreed. "She will have to hit the ground running, reassuring the more dispirited or jaded folks in the city, particularly in the distressed areas of Baltimore, that she is there for them and she will fundamentally change the status quo, politically and economically," Ellison said.
Ellison said Pugh also must collaborate with residents to cultivate the creation of more jobs, draw investment in mass transit and fill vacant houses without gentrifying neighborhoods.
"People are really hoping Pugh is going to be a lot more creative and innovative as far as economic growth strategies, and that she will find ways to energize depressed areas," he said.
Voters interviewed at polls throughout the city said they want the next mayor to address crime in Baltimore. Last year saw a historic spike in murders. This year, the city is on pace to see nearly 1,000 shootings.
While most said they don't want a return to the zero-tolerance policing policies of former Mayor Martin O'Malley, they want a solution to out-of-control crime.
"The biggest thing is public safety," said Ralph Williams, president of the Ashburton-East Arlington Neighborhood Association. "We collectively expect a different approach.
"Definitely, we don't want to go back to zero-tolerance because that affected everyone — even professional African-American men like myself. But I think she could leverage her state connections to make some changes."
Sharon Bradford, president of the Forest Park Neighborhood Association, agreed that public safety is the biggest concern.
"With a new administration coming in, they have to put a plan in place for cleaner streets and safer streets. If we can have them tackle that, that's half the battle," Bradford said of Pugh. "She will give the city a fresh, new start."
Many also expect her to address the entrenched poverty in some parts of Baltimore — a problem that fuels the violent drug trade.
Throughout her campaign, Pugh has pushed plans she says will reform what's wrong with Baltimore. She wants to assume mayoral control of the city's public schools, break up the city's housing operations into two agencies, and put civilians on trial boards that decide disciplinary actions for police officers accused of misconduct.
She has said she wants to build on current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's successes, including halting the population loss in Baltimore and presiding over an economy that added thousands of jobs. Pugh said she's talked with Rawlings-Blake about "wanting the next mayor to be better than the mayor you succeed — that's what every mayor should want." Rawlings-Blake did not run for re-election.
Pugh has assembled a transition team that includes former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, Del. Pete Hammen, and former schools interim CEO Tisha Edwards. She has also traveled to New York to consult with that city's former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, about anti-crime strategies.
But Pugh also believes some of Baltimore's problems are psychological. Too many Baltimoreans focus on the negative aspects of the city, she said, instead of on Baltimore's many positive attributes.
"It's important that people get a positive message and feel great about their city," Pugh said. "The glass is half-full as opposed to half-empty."
She will bring a wide array of experiences to the mayor's office. She helped found the Baltimore Design School and the Baltimore Running Festival. She has been a banker, a journalist, a small-business owner and a college dean. Pugh said she had to pay a signage fee for her consignment shop in Pigtown three times because of the city's errors.
But Tara Priester, 46, of Northeast Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood said she's concerned about the low profile Pugh kept during the general election campaign. Priester said Pugh seemed to disappear after the primary. She was worried she'd do the same after the general election, so she wrote in Dixon's name.
"After the primary you never saw her," said Priester, who just opened an elder care business. "You didn't see her again until Sheila came back and was fighting for her right to have another opportunity. It was extremely disappointing."
Before the primary, Priester said, she liked Pugh and her ideas.
"I liked everything she stood for, but it was like she was missing in action after she felt like she got the vote," she said. "If that's what you're doing after the primary, what will you do when you get into office? Are you going to disappear then? Or are you going to put your tennis shoes on, and hit the streets and be there for us? "
Edwina Harlee, 33, also wrote in Dixon's name. She said Dixon was a good mayor, and despite being forced from office amid a state embezzlement prosecution, she deserved another chance.
"I want to put people in power that are going to care about our children the way I do," Harlee said.
In contrast, some Pugh voters said she's more engaged than others may believe. Rodney Jackson, 58, hugged Pugh outside Gwynns Falls Elementary School after voting for her.
"She's a people person," he said. "She's out here."
Pugh's neighbor, Picola Winkey, agreed. She said Pugh has a passion for regular folks.
Winkey recalled years ago when she had a daughter born with special needs. Pugh surprised her with gifts of baby clothes and a party.
"She was like an angel to me," Winkey said. "I didn't even really know her, but she showered me with love."
Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.