"I've been Santa for 20 years at Mondawmin Mall," said Luke Durant, co-owner of the mall's Somethin' Good Jr. candy store. "The feeling out there is Cathy Pugh."
With the Sept. 9 Democratic primary less than two weeks away, Pugh has clearly emerged as incumbent Sheila Dixon's top challenger. Though she has trailed Dixon in fund raising, Pugh is far ahead of former Councilman Carl Stokes in collecting money and endorsements. But Pugh's campaign is seen by many as a long shot. She is a first-term council member trying to wrest the city's second most powerful elected position from an experienced and savvy council veteran who is also a mayoral ally.
"She's got an uphill fight, but she can catch [Dixon]," said supporter Gene Raynor, a Little Italy restaurateur and confidant of state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who employed Pugh as a public safety adviser when he was mayor.
The fierce fight for president reflects in part the heightened importance of the race. The victor would ascend to the mayor's office without an election if Mayor Martin O'Malley is re-elected, runs for governor in 2006 and wins.
Pugh's biggest challenge is trying to impress voters who don't know much about her. She has many campaign signs around town but lacks a big advertising budget.
Nonetheless, Pugh, 53, who runs a public relations firm, has made many friends in the business and arts communities. She comes across to many people as warm -- someone who likes to hug rather than shake hands. In debates, interviews and meetings with the public, she promotes herself as an enterprising businesswoman and a leader capable of doing what she says Dixon cannot: set the council's community and economic development priorities independent of O'Malley's agenda.
Careful not to offend O'Malley, Pugh also says she would forge a partnership with him.
But Dixon, Stokes and various critics attack her self-image, arguing that she is neither as much of a leader nor as independent as she claims. For proof, they point to her voting record, noting abstentions on controversial votes.
At a recent debate at Coppin State College, Dixon criticized Pugh's unwillingness to take a position on the Police Department's use of civil citations for violations such as loitering. While Pugh said the bill needed more study, Dixon supported it, and defended herself to an audience that strongly voiced its disapproval of the civil fines.
Pugh told the crowd: "I do not believe in giving the police broad powers."
Dixon said angrily: "When you pass on a bill you take no position. That's not taking a 'no.'"
Pugh then retorted: "You supported the bill. I did not."
She also abstained during a council vote allowing Loyola College to build an athletic complex despite objections from some Woodberry residents. Pugh said she wanted an environmental study first.
In March, it was reported in The Sun that Pugh, as a member of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, abstained from the board's vote to fire the convention bureau's embattled chief executive. And she abstained at the same meeting on a decision to not give the executive a bonus.
Although some board members recollect that Pugh abstained on both votes, she said that while she abstained from the compensation decision she voted for the dismissal. The meeting was closed to the public, and the vote was not released.
Pugh said she abstains from votes to allow for negotiations, and that she has voted "no" on other contentious decisions, such as a ban on billboards and taxing nonprofit groups.
Still, some colleagues are concerned about what they view as her waffling on certain issues.
"Either you say 'yes' or 'no,'" said Councilman Edward L. Reisinger. "She should vote 'yes' or 'no' because that shows leadership as far as I'm concerned."
Pugh's abstention on civil citations did not prevent her from being endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 and the Vanguard Justice Society, which advocates on behalf of minority officers.
When critics examine her voting record, they say they see little evidence of independence.
Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said he greatly respects Pugh. But, he added, "as an independent voice, I'm not so sure how different her voting record is from Sheila's. Their records are probably the same."
Pugh dismisses criticism, often leveled by Stokes, that she is as much a part of the status quo as Dixon. She said she is willing to sacrifice her district seat because she would not want to serve on the council again under Dixon's leadership. Her supporters say her background best suits her for a citywide position.
"I was not totally for her running for council [in 1999]," said Dorothy Brunson, chief executive of Brunson Communications Inc. who has been Pugh's mentor since the two met at a media conference more than 20 years ago. "I felt she would get lost in the minutiae of a council that had no focus. ... She has the air of a major leader."
Pugh grew up in Philadelphia and its suburbs. She adopted Baltimore as her new hometown while attending Morgan State University. She graduated in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in business and began working as a manager and credit analyst for Equitable Trust.
Her career was blossoming, and she was preparing to marry when a telephone call that year changed everything. Her younger sister had committed suicide after learning she would die of breast cancer within a year. "The lesson I learned is that life is short," Pugh said. "You have to do what you can while you can."
Pugh married that year but divorced two years later. She earned a master's degree in business administration from Morgan in 1977. She worked as director of Mayor Schaefer's Citizens Involvement Program, helping neighborhoods form anti-crime programs.
As the 1970s ended, Pugh started a weekly newspaper, African-American News & World Report. She served as publisher, editor, reporter, photographer and manager. She also delivered its 10,000 copies.
Once a week for six years, Pugh drove the paper's proofs to an Eastern Shore printer. On one return trip, she stopped at a Baltimore diner before beginning her deliveries. While she ate, thieves stole her car -- and all of the newspapers.
"With very little money, she had to go back to get the printer to print 10,000 more papers and go back and distribute them the next day," said Brunson, who in 1979 became the first black woman in the nation to own a radio station. "Her work ethic is unbelievable."
By 1984, she had ceased publication and also left her job as a reporter for WMAR-TV. Other work included: dean and director of Strayer Business College and vice president of operations, until 1997, of Brunson's firm. She then focused on building her public relations firm, Catherine E. Pugh and Co.
National clients included the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and, locally, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for which she served as spokeswoman. Pugh's membership in Bethel exposed her to several up-and-coming African-American leaders, including Dixon.
When Dixon decided to run for the council presidency in 1999, Pugh ran and won Dixon's vacated seat in West Baltimore's 4th District with the help of the district's two incumbents. Dixon did not formerly endorse Pugh, but has said she supported her, an assertion Pugh denies.
Pugh's decision to run for president surprised Dixon and O'Malley, who gave her opportunities to develop as a councilwoman. O'Malley appointed Pugh as council representative to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. Dixon appointed the rookie legislator to lead council land-use and economic development committees that frequently exposed her to businesses.
"Both the mayor and Sheila gave [Pugh] good opportunities to showcase her talents and her abilities," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, a Dixon-O'Malley supporter.
Pugh said her appointments prove her value to the city's leadership and that her refusal to fall in line with the O'Malley campaign by supporting Dixon proves her independence.
Legislation sponsored by Pugh has limited the sale of body armor, prohibited dirt bikes from city streets, cleared the way for rezoning for a drug treatment center and increased fines for selling unpackaged cigarettes.
The two accomplishments she most promotes on the campaign trail are co-founding the Baltimore Marathon with the mayor's wife, District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, and spearheading the Fish Out of Water public art exhibit.
"Both those events generated a lot of excitement," said Paul Oliver, a BACVA board member with Pugh and co-owner, with Raynor, of Dalesio's of Little Italy. "If you're going to turn a city around it's going to take people like Cathy Pugh."
"I have a vision for the city," Pugh said. "When I look at the city I look at the need to build upper- and middle-income housing so to relieve some of the tax burden for those who have lived here for years."
Other Pugh campaign promises include rehabilitating low-income housing; raising the school dropout age from 16 to 18; opening the council to more community input; and instituting more effective citizen involvement in fighting crime.
Wally Pinkard, chief executive of Colliers Pinkard, a commercial real estate firm, said she has qualities the city needs.
"I've seen [Pugh] build relationships and bridges between community groups and businesses," Pinkard said. "That kind of leadership -- to be able to bridge those gaps in the city -- is very important."
Several community associations in Pugh's council district praise her. "She involved herself in all of our activities," said Pearl Moulton, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council.
Harry Johnson, executive director of the Penn-North Revitalization Corp., said Pugh helped his group obtain nonprofit status and raise $25,000 in community development block grants. Pugh frequently encourages community groups to form nonprofit corporations.
Not every community group was as happy with Pugh. Members of the Walbrook Neighborhood Community Council said Pugh was not responsive to requests regarding programs for senior citizens.
Still, even many critics agreed that Pugh is a tireless networker. Her energy is fueled, in part, by excellent health -- she is a long-distance runner and had been a vegetarian. (She now also eats salmon and tuna.)
Pugh never fails to appear fashionable, always adorning her right lapel with a bright faux flower.
Her persona, many say, contrasts with Dixon's more blunt style. Spector said Dixon is often hard to get along with, and that Dixon and Pugh clashed more because of personalities, not politics. Spector said she supports Dixon because she is a more decisive leader. She said Pugh carries an attitude of "like me more because I'm pleasant, because I look good and I dress well."
Brunson said Pugh has had to endure such stereotypes for years as an "attractive" businesswoman. But Brunson added, "She prides herself on her intellect and her sensitivity."
Her supporters, including the former mayor and governor, believe that she has the qualities to lead the city.
"I think that if the ball bounces and O'Malley moves on to governor that [Pugh] would be a good person for a mayor," Schaefer said. "She'd be a good president of the City Council."