Baltimore's Mayor Pugh held $20,000 fundraiser with liquor store owners after linking such businesses to crime

After repeatedly drawing a link between crime and corner liquor stores in some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, Mayor Catherine Pugh held a fundraiser with Korean-American store owners that netted her campaign account more than $20,000.

A few dozen people attended the Sept. 10 fundraiser at Jazz+Soju, an upscale Korean restaurant in Riverside.

The fundraising event was organized by leaders of the Asian-American Licensed Beverage Association and the Korean-American PAC. The organizations donated $3,000 each to Pugh’s campaign on the day of the event, according to campaign finance disclosures.

Pugh said in an interview that the donations don’t change her views about liquor stores and that she supported a change in zoning laws — passed before she took office — that is forcing many of the stores out of business.

“Lobbyists can donate money to my campaign; it doesn’t influence my decisions,” Pugh said. “It never has and never will.”

The next mayoral election is in 2020. Pugh said she had not made a decision on whether to seek re-election, but she has almost $600,000 in her campaign account.

The meetings with Pugh are part of a broader effort to organize Korean-American business owners, community leaders say. The business owners say they’ve been scapegoated and targeted by legislation in the past and feel pressured by the mayor’s Violence Reduction Initiative, which brings together police and other city agencies to tackle crime.

Nine of the business that donated to her campaign at the fundraiser have been cited since the mayor took office in December 2016 for violations of the housing code, liquor laws and other city rules, records show.

Julian Min, a co-owner of Jazz+Soju and a spokesman for the businessmen, said the owners who met with Pugh want to be able to better stand up for themselves.

“We want to have a dialogue with the mayor’s office because we do want to do business in Baltimore city,” said Min, who is also a Baltimore police detective but was speaking in a personal capacity. “It’s not just about the liquor stores — it’s about the future of Korean-American small businesses.”

The zoning law — the subject of fierce debate as it made its way through the City Council — was designed to push liquor stores out of residential areas, a step the council approved as part of an overhaul of the city’s zoning laws in 2016.

When the law passed, officials estimated it would affect 105 stores. Seventy-five remain, but by June they will have to either close, change their business model or get special permission from the zoning board to remain open.

Paul Kwan-Young Lee, president of the Korea Society, Baltimore, and a store owner in Park Heights, said he attended the dinner and his store donated $1,000 to Pugh’s campaign, according to an October campaign finance filing.

“Korean merchants are begging,” said Lee, whose store is not affected by the law. Lee said he didn’t think the mayor could undo the zoning changes, but affected store owners want the city to provide compensation. “We’re asking for help. We’re begging. That’s the main reason to have a fundraiser.”

Pugh ruled that out last week, saying, “We are not providing any reimbursement.”

In an account of the dinner published in The Korea Times in Korean, Pugh was quoted as saying she would consider finding ways to help. The headline read, “‘I will consider solutions for the zoning act and other issues.’”

“I would like to pay attention to the problems facing Korean-Americans in the city, such as the Baltimore City Zoning Act. and try to consider various solutions,” Pugh was quoted as saying, according to a translation for The Baltimore Sun.

The mayor said in an interview that she meant the liquor store owners should look at other opportunities.

“What I said was is that I need them to consider other businesses, like the restaurant business they opened up on Fort Avenue,” where the fundraiser was held, Pugh said. “I get the sense that they want direction.”

A recent study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University found that liquor stores were linked to higher crime rates than bars. And stores continue to have opponents in city neighborhoods.

The Rev. Keith Bailey, president of the Fulton Heights Community Association, testified last year against the renewal of a liquor license for one of the stores that contributed to the mayor’s campaign. He said he thought of Pugh as an ally against the stores and was worried that might no longer be the case.

“I’m very upset about that,” he said. “Liquor stores are giving off big problems.”

Store owner Jong Ho Lee formed the beverage association a year ago with help from Min. Lee, whose Greenmount Avenue store contributed $1,000 to the mayor’s campaign, said he supported the idea of reducing business hours in some cases, an idea pushed by the mayor.

But he questioned whether liquor stores cause violence and said store owners want to work in a safer city.

“If crime is down, business is better,” Lee said.

Liquor stores and other small businesses have attracted personal attention from the mayor as she tours neighborhoods as part of the Violence Reduction Initiative. In the spring, Pugh urged police to look for drug dealers inside West Baltimore liquor stores, saying she thought they had moved indoors with the tacit approval of business owners. At a meeting in April with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, Pugh again raised the issue of whether neighborhood convenience and liquor stores had ties to drug dealing.

Store owners who attended the September event with Pugh said they were eager to build a relationship with the mayor after she made such comments. Among them was Sung Kang, the owner of the Oxford Tavern bar and liquor store on West North Avenue.

Reverend Bailey and other neighbors protested the establishment’s license last year over allegations that people were persistently loitering outside, and this year it was fined $500 for selling alcohol to a minor.

GLOF Inc., the company that operates the bar, donated $500 to Pugh on the day of the fundraiser and another $500 earlier in the year.

The wall of the bar displays pictures of Kang and politicians, including Pugh and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, both Democrats, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Kang said he has worked to improve the relationship with the community since the license protest and told his staff to check IDs more closely after receiving the fine.

Kang attended the dinner and was pleased that store owners had raised money for Pugh.

“We can show how the Korean people come together and support politicians,” he said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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