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Campaign Beat

The Brawl for It All

Stokes, Pugh, and Dixon Go Head-to-head in Heated Race for City Council President

Christopher Myers
As Serious as Your Life: (From Left) James Hugh Jones II, Catherine E. Pugh, Carl Stokes, and Sheila Dixon face off in a debate at Coppin State College.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/3/2003

The mayoral race may be generating most of the media attention this primary season, but the contest for City Council president is arguably generating more heat. At a recent debate among the four Democratic candidates for the city's No. 2 political post, at West Baltimore's Coppin State College, it didn't take long for the temperature of the discussion--and the tempers of some of the participants--to flare.

After incumbent 4th District Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh decried giving police "broad powers," incumbent President Sheila Dixon sniped at Pugh--without mentioning her by name--for "passing" rather than actually voting against a recent controversial measure granting the Baltimore Police Department the ability to write civil citations to combat "quality of life" crimes. When Pugh's turn to speak came, she fired back at Dixon: "You voted for it, I didn't."

Former City Councilman Carl Stokes joked that he was glad James Hugh Jones II, a local minister and the fourth candidate, was standing at a podium between the two women. Meanwhile, Jones repeatedly asserted that the current council was "not effective at all . . . and I'm not leaving anyone out," and Stokes offered his own more polished jabs at the sitting council.

The heated rhetoric at this and other candidate forums underlines what is at stake in this race. Whoever wins the election will preside over a brand-new council configuration of 14 redrawn districts, each represented by a single councilperson. The incoming president must find a way to make this new council--which is likely to include several novice legislators--continue the city's progress in fighting crime, improving schools, and boosting the economy while arresting its slide in other areas. Then there are the rampant speculations that if incumbent Mayor Martin O'Malley wins re-election, he will run for governor in 2006; if O'Malley were to win that race, the next City Council president would ascend to the mayor's office automatically.

And for the three most prominent contenders for president, the personal stakes are also high. If Dixon loses, her 16-year-career on the council will come to an end. Pugh opted not to run for re-election in her new district in order to challenge Dixon; if she loses, her political career is over for the time being. And for Stokes, who pulled out of the mayoral primary at the literal last minute and refiled to run for council president, the contest offers a chance to turn around his political career after his defeat by O'Malley in the 1999 mayoral race and possibly take over City Hall in the end.

Despite the 2002 passage of ballot initiative Question P, which mandated the council reconfiguration and was widely interpreted as a de facto referendum on the council's recent performance, Dixon downplays any spirit of anti-incumbency among the city's electorate. "I don't have that sense--that's the [other] candidates [talking]," she says. "We've been out canvassing . . . [and] the response has been very positive about the momentum in the city, the progress we've been making, and understanding the fact that we've got to make more [progress]."

But in recent candidate forums, Dixon has been taking a licking from her opponents for her tight relationship with O'Malley and for holding a closed-door meeting with City Council members in August 2002 to discuss their own redistricting plan. The move was ruled a violation of Maryland's Open Meetings Act by the state Court of Appeals and got was thrown out. (Dixon's opponents have also repeatedly brought up questions about a suit filed by the Maryland Ethics Commission regarding her employment as a trade specialist for the state while serving as council president [she took a leave of absence in 2002] and about her putting family members on the city payroll, a practice not unknown in Council chambers; the city Board of Ethics is still reviewing the matter).

Dixon says she regrets the now-infamous meeting, saying she "should have gone ahead" and introduced her council-restructuring plan in an open hearing rather than trying to build support away from public scrutiny. That way even if it hadn't won, she says "at least I did my best."

Dixon, 49, did resist the council restructuring. "Some people didn't realize they voted for Question P," she says. "They went straight down and voted 'yes yes yes' for the bond bills." But she does take credit for reorganizing the council in other ways, making it meet year-round and downsizing the number of committees. She also brings up her efforts as a city councilwoman during redistricting a decade ago to ensure a better balance of African-American representation on the council. "Of course, Carl [Stokes] took all the credit for that," she says.

Indeed, Dixon feels she has not gotten the credit she deserves for her hard work during her three years as president. "I've done a great deal of initiatives, and I would have liked to have gotten my message out so that the public would have a better sense," she says. "I'm not great at tooting my own horn."

Encouraged to toot, she points to a portfolio of social concerns she has worked on, including better schools, lead poisoning, and drug treatment, as well as economic-development initiatives she has shepherded as council president and through her seat on the city's Board of Estimates. Some of those initiatives include the new Johns Hopkins biotech park on the city's east side, the $24 million Frankford Estates housing development, and more than 9,000 jobs created as a result of various projects. She also mentions her establishment of the city's AIDS Commission and getting a state of emergency declared regarding the city's HIV/AIDS crisis as a point of pride, along with her outreach to Baltimore's Latino community.

One of the biggest challenges the incoming City Council president faces is dealing with a newly reconfigured council, likely filled with old faces representing new neighborhoods and new faces representing their communities for the first time. Dixon already is working on what she calls "preventative measures"--namely a preparatory "academy" for old and new councilpersons alike on "how to respond better to constituents, how to look at the budget, legislative issues."

Asked if she's concerned about dealing with anti-incumbent firebrands elected because they promised to shake up the council, Dixon says, "That spirit is needed, but the bottom line is if it's going to block progress, then we've got to work to silence them."

Councilwoman Pugh (D-4th) is considered by many political observers the challenger most likely to give the incumbent president a run for her money. And according to Pugh, it is the president who is blocking progress in the city. "I'm running because I see no vision for Baltimore," she says.

Pugh, 54, a Philadelphia native and Morgan State University grad, has served as the head of Strayer Business College; as a TV reporter; as publisher of her own newspaper, African-American News and World Report; and most recently as head of her own eponymous public-relations firm. She has also been involved in a variety of community activities, from working as the director of the city's Citizens Involvement Program under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer to founding the Baltimore Marathon. Her plans for the council and the city are equally broad based.

Pugh says when she was elected to City Council in 1999 she was advised by mentor Schaefer to "attend every hearing . . . attend every community group meeting, find out what each community's needs are." To redress what she sees as a lack of council responsiveness, she proposes creating a "community council," a rotating monthly meeting in which City Council members would decamp to the various districts to meet with community groups and business leaders on their own turf. Pugh also advocates weekly, instead of biweekly, council meetings, and moving all council hearings to evening hours so working people can more easily attend.

Pugh says that raising the public-school dropout age from 16 to 18 is "absolutely a necessity" to keep young Baltimoreans in school and off the streets. She also puts high priority on fixing the school system, advocating for building new schools instead of refurbishing the crumbling buildings students attend now. She is a strong proponent of encouraging the development of middle- and upper-income housing, "because if we don't, those of us who are mid- and lower income will continue to bear the tax burden for those houses that are boarded up." Pugh also calls for reviving the Schaefer-era dollar-house program to encourage homeowners to move into and help stabilize struggling neighborhoods, and for demolishing "four- or five-block areas" for redevelopment in the city's most blighted areas.

As for public safety, Pugh prescribes a mix of community policing and the revitalization of the Neighborhood Watch and Citizens on Patrol initiatives she first worked with 20 years ago under Schaefer. Asked if she thinks people might be less willing to get involved in the wake of events such as the murder of the Dawson family, she says, "It will take encouragement, and it will take courage on behalf of the citizens to do this. But the result is the neighborhoods get safer."

Pugh has tackled some urban ills as a rookie councilwoman, introducing initiatives to ban dirt bikes on city streets and the sale of body armor. Her critics, including Dixon, have charged that she often abstains or passes on voting in hearings. And she is perhaps best known to many Baltimoreans, however, for an initiative called "Can We Build a Better Image for Baltimore?", which was widely construed as an attack on the gritty Baltimore-set and -filmed TV series The Wire. Misconstrued, Pugh says somewhat wearily.

"There are more police shows being filmed in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami than in Baltimore," she says. "But when you think of New York, you think of bright lights and theater. When you think of Miami, you think of beaches. When you think of L.A., you think of Tinseltown. That's because those cities have taken the time and spent the money to create the image that they want the world to see. That's what the resolution was about. It was never about The Wire."

Other than James Hugh Jones II, 49, who could not be reached for comment before press time, the City Council president candidate who has had the lowest campaign profile is 53-year-old Carl Stokes. Stokes acknowledges that "most people had already committed to Dixon or Pugh by the time I entered the race, so it's been extremely difficult to raise money." (According to campaign-finance reports filed with the Board of Elections, as of Aug. 12 Stokes had raised $59,450 while Pugh had raised $211,013 and Dixon had raised $250,146.) Although he says he "felt strongly about the mayoral run, this was a better position politically, strategically. . . . The City Council was in total disrepair, the leadership was very ineffective, the council was no longer a relevant body. The better race was to enter the City Council president race and try to repair the City Council."

In addition to his lack of campaign funds, Stokes also must overcome the memory of his ill-fated 1999 mayoral campaign, which was hobbled by a scandal over an official résumé that claimed he had earned a degree from Loyola College when he had not. "I stumbled myself, obviously, through the [1999] campaign," Stokes says. "We were able to come back from that, but we took great energy from the campaign working on issues internally, as opposed to the external campaign."

Turning to this year's race, Stokes finds the hot topic of the primary ironic. "Four years ago, I spoke about children and schools and taking care of young people as my theme," he says. "I have the same theme this year--Vote for the Children--and now everybody's talking about children."

In addition to his stint as chair of the Education and Labor Subcommittee during his time on City Council from 1987 to 1995 (he represented the old 2nd District), the erstwhile health-care executive touts his stint on the city School Board between 1997 and '99, as well as his work since as chair of the advocacy group Maryland Education Coalition, which pushed the fight to get the Thornton Commission's education-funding recommendations passed in Annapolis. Stokes places primary importance on fixing the city schools, vowing to increase the city's portion of the annual school system budget, and to use the council's legislative sway to hold schools accountable for that funding and their overall performance via public hearings.

Beyond education, Stokes' platform is focused primarily on crime and economic development, although he notes the crucial relationship between all of the above: "Education and jobs will get us to lower crime in the long run more effectively than any kind of policing."

Stokes advocates working toward stability in the recently tumultuous police command staff and a return to an emphasis on community policing. He also talks about shoring up the commercial districts of "neighborhoods right next door to communities that are stable"--such as Waverly and the Greenmount Avenue corridor adjacent to his own neighborhood of Charles Village--in order to expand areas of relative prosperity throughout the city.

Of course, Stokes acknowledges, the next City Council president will have plenty of issues to deal with in the council chamber itself. He says that, without multiple councilpersons representing the various needs of each community in each district, the next president will have to "make sure that individual [councilpersons] pay attention to the broad spectrum of his or her constituency," adding that "many times the City Council president's office will have to be the place that alternative voices come, which is going to be way different than the council president now." The tradition of councilmanic courtesy (wherein the wishes of a certain district's council delegation in matters pertaining to that district are respected by the other councilpersons when voting) may not always be in the city's best interests under the new council structure, he adds.

Whatever disdain Pugh and Stokes express about Dixon's close working relationship with O'Malley (both use the term "rubber stamp"), both also make it clear that if elected they would work with the mayor more often than against him. Pugh says she hopes for "a good working relationship. . . . There are times when we can stand together and there are absolutely times when we will stand apart." Even harsh O'Malley critic Stokes, who likely faces serving alongside one of two former political rivals--O'Malley or challenger Andrey Bundley--says he would probably vote with the mayor "80, 85 percent of the time. . . . I'm not going in to fight with the mayor. That would be stupid in terms of service to the Baltimore community."

More than just working with the mayor, however closely, Dixon, Pugh, and Stokes all acknowledge the tantalizing possibility of taking over the mayor's job without having to raise a dime or debate a single issue. "Yeah, it's occurred to me," Stokes says with a laugh, though he also stresses, "I'm not running for mayor."

Dixon has thought about the prospect of becoming mayor someday enough to offer that she would first revamp the 311 call-center system and address the efficiency of city services by starting not at the top with the department heads, but "at the bottom, talking with the people who do the actual work." Pugh, meanwhile, asks, "Is my vision clear enough and broad enough that it would make a difference as the mayor of this city? Absolutely."

But before anyone can start counting on being able to run City Council, much less the city as a whole, the voters have to weigh in. The only thing for certain, Pugh says, is that "nobody's name is on a seat in City Council."

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