If the Mondawmin Santa Claus is right, Catherine E. Pugh could wind up being Baltimore's next City Council president.
"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.