Transparency becomes key for well-connected Baltimore Mayor-elect Catherine Pugh

Baltimore City mayor-elect Catherine Pugh named her administration transition committee during a news conference at Sarah's Hope.
Baltimore City mayor-elect Catherine Pugh named her administration transition committee during a news conference at Sarah's Hope. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Catherine E. Pugh campaigned for mayor of Baltimore in part on a history of building relationships.

The veteran politician — daughter of a factory worker, acolyte of William Donald Schaefer and outgoing majority leader of the state Senate — can get fellow elected officials on the phone, call summits of business leaders she knows personally, or talk neighbor to neighbor to help her tackle the many ills that have long vexed the city.


But as Pugh calls in support from the state and federal government, businesses and philanthropic groups to advance Baltimore, some warn that the network of collaborators she has nurtured during nearly two decades in the City Council and the General Assembly could be a potential hazard.

They say the Democrat must be prepared to address any conflicts of interest — real or perceived — or her connections could cloud her administration.


"It will be up to her how she'll shape that legacy," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the watchdog organization Common Cause Maryland. "Her relationships give her an opportunity to do an awful lot of good, but it all needs to be done in a super-transparent way."

Pugh, 66, is to be sworn in Tuesday as the 50th mayor of Baltimore.

Members of the City Council say they are ready to turn the page on the administration of Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, with which they shared a sometimes combative relationship.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose relationship with Rawlings-Blake became strained, calls Pugh a friend. He's expected to speak at her inauguration.


Pugh said one of her first acts as mayor will be to ask Republican President-elect Donald J. Trump to send more federal money to Baltimore.

The mayor-elect said there's no downside to being well-connected. She said she intends "to use my relationships in a way that is effective for Baltimore."

"I can pick up and the phone and call the governor," Pugh said. "I can pick up the phone and call members of the [congressional] delegation.

"It's not like I am just trying to develop a relationship with these folks. Those relationships, built over time, matter. People know how hard I will work."

Making progress in Baltimore on many matters will take significant support from Annapolis and Washington.

State Sen. Stephen Hershey, the Senate minority whip, says he didn't always fully understand the challenges confronting the city. But in the days after the riots of 2015, the Upper Eastern Shore Republican says, Pugh gave him the context he needed.

Pugh took Hershey to neighborhoods that were looted and burned after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered lethal injuries while in police custody. She told him the history of the communities and the frustration of the residents.

Hershey said the tour influenced the way he responded to a package of bills aimed at improving Baltimore that came before the General Assembly this year.

"Baltimore City is gaining a great mayor who will have knowledge of the inner workings of the General Assembly," Hershey said. "That could be nothing but helpful."

Calls for transparency

It will be up to Pugh to document and disclose her relationships with business officials.

Pugh spent more than $2.4 million during the competitive Democratic primary — the most expensive campaign for Baltimore mayor in recent memory. In 2011, the four leading candidates for the job spent $3.3 million combined.

Pugh drew criticism shortly after her primary win when she flew from Las Vegas to Baltimore on the private jet of a Maryland businessman and donor to her campaign. She paid $650 to return from an international shopping center convention in May aboard a plane belonging to Walter A. Tilley Jr., chief executive of Home Paramount Pest Control.

Tilley and his wife, Nancy, each contributed the maximum $6,000 to Pugh's mayoral campaign.

Pugh said she checked state ethics rules before taking the flight, and determined there was no conflict.

Relationships with other campaign donors — some of them fixtures in Baltimore politics — have also come under scrutiny.

Former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. lent Pugh $100,000 from his campaign account to help fund a final push in the April primary. She has repaid the loan; Smith has advised her on her transition.

Financier J.P. Grant, who contributed the maximum $6,000 to Pugh's campaign, is advising her on economic development and whether to restructure the Baltimore Development Corp.

Pugh — a longtime member of the Senate Finance Committee, which considers legislation to regulate industry — also named Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. CEO Calvin G. Butler Jr. to her transition team. He contributed $1,000 to her campaign; BGE gave more.

Alfred H. Guy Jr. is director of the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore. Given how well-connected Pugh is, he said, she must go to lengths to assure the public that political favors are not paid to campaign donors, that business dealings with the city are above board and that special access is not granted to one group over another.

The more forthcoming Pugh is with information in the face of perceived conflicts, he said, the more confidence she will earn.

"What the public can't stand is sneakiness," Guy said. If Pugh is transparent, he said, "she will be a breath of fresh air."

Pugh, who has lived in Northwest Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood since 1988, said she has and will involve the public in making decisions for the city, asking for input, discussing obstacles and offering updates on progress.

She also said the people she chose for her transition team are not looking for jobs.

"They're comfortable in what they're doing," she said. "They matter to this administration as a way to build up neighborhoods and communities, not because they were friends of mine."

Pugh has yet to name any members of her administration.

The mayor-elect said she tells donors their money does not determine how she votes, how she acts or with whom she interacts.

Pugh was elected to the City Council in 1999. Since then, she said, she has connected with people who run businesses and nonprofits, and people who are leaders in their communities. Pugh said she represents those people, so she should have relationships with them.

She says those collaborations have brought results: transforming a deserted warehouse into the Baltimore Design School, raising $1 million to wire city classrooms for internet access and purchase musical instruments for students, and sponsoring or co-sponsoring 200 bills passed by the General Assembly.

Pugh said she is close with members of Maryland's congressional delegation — particularly Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who endorsed her in the crowded Democratic mayoral primary. She spoke in Dubai last year to an international group of women about economic development, and was invited to sit next to first lady Michelle Obama during the 2015 State of the Union address.

She has served on dozens of boards, including for the University of Maryland Medical Systems and the Council of State Governments.


Besides serving in elected office, Pugh co-owns a consignment shop in Pigtown. She taught at Morgan State University, her alma mater; owned a public relations firm; and worked as dean and director of Strayer Business College, now known as Strayer University.


She spoke to The Baltimore Sun last week from New Orleans, where she was wrapping up her duties as president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

Benefits of connections

Her experience as a state legislator is likely to prove helpful as mayor.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said Pugh's relationships in Annapolis — and especially her rapport with the governor — could "pay dividends."

McIntosh, who has said she is considering challenging Hogan for governor in 2018, spoke of several challenges the city faces.

They include pushing back against efforts to move the State Center complex — and some 3,000 state government jobs — out of Baltimore.

Pugh's connections could help the city win state support for redeveloping State Center, McIntosh said, and for completing projects at the University of Maryland BioPark, Lexington Market and the burgeoning Food Hub campus near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"All of those projects need money for transportation and for our schools," McIntosh said. "Those are big areas that her relationships could serve."

Rawlings-Blake, who did not seek re-election after six years as mayor, said she is thankful that Pugh is succeeding her. She said she would help the new mayor however possible.

"There are many transitions at the municipal level where there is no love lost between one administration and the next," Rawlings-Blake said. "To be able to pass the baton to someone I care about as a person, who I know cares about the city, that has a lot of respect for what I have done, is a blessing for me."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young served on the City Council with Pugh before she joined the legislature. Young said he considers the mayor-elect to be a "people's person." He expects she will be widely accessible.

"We will work together as a team to move Baltimore forward," he said. "Baltimore is facing a critical time. We don't know what is going to transpire with a Republican administration in the White House.

"Her connections around the country … and her relationships in Annapolis will be a plus for us in Baltimore."

Pugh said one of the first letters she will write is to Trump. She plans to make whatever calls she can to ensure her appeal gets into the Republican's hands: Give Baltimore a share of the investment the mogul has promised for American roads, bridges and water lines.

A Trump spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment.

Pugh described her pitch for the president-elect.

"'We're a city right down the road with significant infrastructure needs and people ready to work,'" she said.

"'We would love to be the model city you talked about.'"