Pugh eyes role as council president

Moves suggest she may vie with Dixon for position

City's second-highest post

April 24, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

City Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh is positioning herself for a possible run for City Council president, a job that would take on added importance if Mayor Martin O'Malley leaves to run for higher office.

By city charter, the president would automatically ascend to become mayor if O'Malley is re-elected and runs for governor, as he almost did last year, and is elected in 2006.

During a packed fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency hotel downtown Tuesday night, about 500 of the city's most powerful and connected people -- including bakery magnate John Paterakis, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and O'Malley -- mingled around a 3-foot ice sculpture of Pugh's initials "CP" to nibble hors d'oeuvres, drink soda and fork over $100,000 in contributions.

Pugh, a 53-year-old public relations executive and organizer of the "Fish Out of Water" public art exhibit, the Baltimore Marathon and other civic events, did not announce her intentions. But she told the crowd she wanted to be in the "leadership of the city of Baltimore," and many took this -- along with the impressive turnout -- as suggestions that she will launch a strong challenge to Council President Sheila Dixon.

The possibility of a Dixon vs. Pugh showdown for the city's second-most-powerful post became more likely yesterday, as two other council members previously mentioned as possible challengers -- Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Kenneth N. Harris Sr. -- indicated they would probably not run.

"It sounded to me as if [Pugh] is running for the president of the City Council," Mitchell said. "She had a lot of Schaefer backers there, and much of the city's business community. But you didn't see the unions there, and there were only a handful of people from the community."

A Pugh-Dixon contest would offer voters a contrast of styles.

Pugh, a former TV news reporter and banker who has focused on promoting the city's image during her three years on the council, is a polished, articulate, careful public relations consultant who maintains business connections by sitting on 16 local boards, including the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

Dixon, 49, is a tenacious, tough former teacher from West Baltimore who holds a black belt in karate and who is liked by her supporters for her blunt, no-nonsense speaking style. She often fights for the needy, pushing the city to pay more attention to AIDS patients and children poisoned by lead paint, among other causes.

Much of the gossip at Pugh's event was whether the real battle was over who will be the next mayor of the city, if O'Malley wins re-election and then successfully challenges Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"She's expressed a desire and has ambition to be mayor," City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said of Pugh. "I think she exemplifies good leadership qualities. She's very focused, she's determined and is very good at raising money. She sits on a lot of [civic] boards and has lots of connections."

Pugh, who was elected three years ago to represent West Baltimore on the council, refused to disclose whether she would run for president or re-election to the council in the September Democratic primary. "I have time," she said, with a filing deadline of June 30. "Right now, I'm focused on raising money and exploring options -- and making the right decisions."

But in her speech to the crowd, she laid out a broad vision for attacking two of the city's most serious problems: lagging education and a lack of economic development.

"I want to create a new collaboration between the public schools and the colleges and universities in the Baltimore area," Pugh said. "And I am committed to making sure our business community continues to grow, because it is the backbone of our city."

One of those who listened to Pugh's speech was Dixon, a 15-year council veteran elected president three years ago.

Dixon said she believes that she would make a more effective council president than Pugh because she has much more experience as a legislator. And she noted Pugh's reference to the business community to suggest that Pugh is estranged from people in the neighborhoods.

"I've tried to be sensitive to all aspects of the community," Dixon said. "Cathy Pugh talks about business as being the backbone of the city, but I believe it's the community that's the backbone, as well as business."

O'Malley said yesterday that he attended the fund-raiser because he likes Pugh as a councilwoman, not because he wants her to challenge Dixon.

"I think that Council President Dixon has done a very good job as council president, and Catherine Pugh has done a very good job as a councilperson, working to promote the city," said O'Malley.

Many who attended the fund-raiser speculated about whether O'Malley would serve his full next term, if re-elected.

Schaefer said he liked the mayor and Pugh, whom he called "impressive." But the former governor added: "I don't think there's any doubt [O'Malley] has got his eye on governor. ... I don't particularly care for that. I think you've got to finish your job before moving on."

Mfume said he did not know whether Pugh was running for council president. "I just thought I'd stop by to wish her well," Mfume said.

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