One in a series of profiles of candidates for mayor
Wearing a pair of "walking shoes" and a single-breasted white dress coat, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh flags down a sedan in Northeast Baltimore.
"I'm running to be your next mayor. I need your support," Pugh says with a broad smile, leaning into the passenger window as the driver briefly stops to listen on a recent Saturday morning.
After the car glides down a side street off Batavia Avenue, Pugh, 66, bounds down the street to catch up with her team of volunteers. She greets Sandra Dixon on her front porch, as Dixon's dogs bark noisily behind the front door.
"I am going to move this city forward, not backward," Pugh tells Dixon.
"It's got to go somewhere, because there's so much potential," Dixon says.
The special-education teacher is one of dozens of potential voters Pugh meets on this busy day, about a month before the April 26 primary. Pugh overflows with energy on the campaign trail and says her mind never stops racing either.
She recently sketched out a plan to help Baltimore residents find jobs by sending employment counselors to struggling neighborhoods and college campuses aboard buses equipped with a central jobs database. The idea came to her in the early-morning hours as she mulled over conversations and research about how other cities lowered unemployment.
She never has required much sleep. Her dad, a union laborer in a rubber factory who died from asbestos exposure 40 years ago, used to ask for her to sit up front on long family road trips, because she would stay awake the whole ride and keep him company.
Her mother, who stayed at home with the seven Pugh children, used to ask her eldest daughter: "What do you think, the world's going to pass you by, you can't get sleep?"
Pugh said she used to work from 11 at night to 7 in the morning at a nursing home outside her hometown of Philadelphia before working a second job at a laboratory for the next eight hours. She took the jobs to save enough money to move to Baltimore and enroll at Morgan State University.
Her experience since then has been as eclectic as it is extensive. She worked as a banker and a journalist, helped establish the city marathon and the Baltimore Design School, opened a clothing boutique in Pigtown, published a series of children's books, designed a line of infant clothes and served as dean and director of Strayer's Business College, as Strayer University was then known.
She added elected official to her resume in 1999 when she was elected to the City Council. She won a seat in the state House of Delegates in 2005 and then in the state Senate two years later. Pugh came in second to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in the last mayoral race.
'It's now or never'
This time, Pugh is a favorite to win the primary — and, in heavily Democratic Baltimore, likely the general election in November. She is in a virtual tie with former Mayor Sheila Dixon, according to recent polling conducted for The Baltimore Sun and University of Baltimore.
The poll found Pugh had the support of 26 percent of voters and Dixon had 24 percent in a crowded field of 13 Democrats. A quarter of voters still were undecided.
Sean Yoes, the host of the current affairs show "First Edition" on radio station WEAA, said Pugh's ability to appeal nearly equally to white and black voters is key.
Dixon draws more of her support from African-American voters than white voters, according to polling. Challenger and businessman David L. Warnock, who polled third with 10 percent, is more popular with white voters than black.
"I suspect that it's now or never for her," Yoes said of Pugh. "I see this as her best shot at the big chair."
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Pugh has her own core of supporters but also is drawing voters who believe she is a viable alternative to Dixon, who resigned from office in 2010 after being found guilty of embezzlement.
"Even if she's the No. 2 candidate for Embry, Mosby or Warnock supporters, if people see that writing on the wall, they could start coalescing behind her in the closing weeks of the election," Kromer said.
Pugh is not without her own baggage — serving as a longtime elected official in Baltimore ties her to some of the systemic issues that contributed to last year's unrest, Kromer said. The Mosby and Embry campaigns have emphasized that connection.
"Her history with Baltimore City can be a help, but also a hindrance," Kromer said.
Money is unlikely to be a problem; Pugh has raised a competitive amount. Campaign finance reports this month show Pugh had $371,000 in her account, while Dixon had $476,000.
But some of Pugh's donations have come under scrutiny. Eleven checks worth a total of $66,000 — each written for $6,000, the maximum donation allowed by law — could not be cashed due to a lack of funds in donors' bank accounts.
Most of the 11 checks came from two small city blocks — one in Little Italy and one in North Baltimore.
The checks raised red flags for some, and Pugh's political opponents accused her of accepting donations from companies that were violating campaign finance laws. The rivals say some of the company names listed on the campaign finance forms aren't registered with the state.
Pugh has blamed some discrepancies on typos and poor record keeping by donors. She also has said the donations in question represent less than 1 percent of the individual contributions she has received.
'Married to the city'
Meanwhile, Pugh has pumped significant money into advertising, outspending Dixon nearly 4-1 in the past two months. She spent $589,000 to Dixon's $148,000.
The senator said she is spending about $60,000 every 10 days to amplify her message, including with television commercials, roadside signs and radio ads. She said she wants to tell voters she is a "quiet leader, vocal when necessary" and someone who has a track record.
As evidence of her work provide equal opportunities for all, she pointed to her experience as a board member for the University of Maryland Medical System, her work helping to support minority businesses and the 150 bills she sponsored and got passed in Annapolis.
"Everything I have done to this point has prepared me to lead this city," Pugh said. "I'll be one of the most inclusive leaders, who listens to people, and hears them."
Pugh, who is single and has no children, often tells people she's "married to the city."
She wants to correct course where necessary and build on what's worked in Baltimore. She saluted Rawlings-Blake's signature Vacants to Value program and the city's new AA bond rating, the highest earned in years.
She wants to create a board of directors at every public school (she thinks it would help raise money and draw volunteers into classrooms), establish a local "Academy Awards" to celebrate Baltimore's standout citizens and use a grant program to entice businesses to sign five-year leases in neighborhoods.
Terrence J. Cavanagh, director of the state council for the Service Employees International Union, joined dozens of blue-collar workers at Pugh's campaign headquarters on a recent day. Volunteers from a handful of unions turned out to canvass city neighborhoods for the candidate.
"Today, we're going to deliver her message," said Cavanagh, introducing the senator. "Catherine Pugh can do just about anything, but one thing she can't do is be in 50 places at once — but we can."
Pugh stepped to the podium, thanked the group, and offered a preview of the Baltimore she believes she can foster: "This is a city built for a million people. Now we have 600,000 — there is so much room for us to grow.
"Work with me. Let's go out there and tell folks that you have chosen the right candidate."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
Catherine E. Pugh
Job: State senator; co-owner of 2 Chic Boutique
Experience: State Senate, 2007-present; House of Delegates, 2005-2007; Baltimore City Council, 1999-2004
Education: B.S., M.B.A., Morgan State University
Family: Single, no children