The unraveling of Council President Pugh

By Steve Neavling

It’s safe to say Detroit has never seen a council president quite like Charles Pugh.

The former TV reporter with no political experience swept into city hall in 2009, collecting more votes than any of his eight colleagues. Detroit’s first openly gay councilman pledged to restore faith in a council battered by corruption, incompetence and childish infighting. He promised a less divisive, more reform-minded council.

Detroit got neither.

A man of two sides, Pugh can be charming, temperamental, progressive, juvenile. Born in a hardscrabble neighborhood 40 years ago, Pugh’s mother was murdered when he was three, and his father committed suicide four years later. Raised by his grandmother, Pugh was an academic standout and earned a scholarship to University of Missouri’s elite journalism school.

Pugh returned with a successful career in TV and radio, enamoring audiences with his charm and crafty storytelling.

Pugh was, no doubt, an inspiring figure. A symbol of hope.

But during one of the city’s most difficult times, Pugh’s strengths didn’t exactly carry over to the council table. Over the past two-and-a-half years, Pugh has bullied and patronized critics, silenced residents and instigated petty, staged fights with Mayor Dave Bing.

When residents were outraged that the council narrowly supported state intervention this spring, Pugh moved meetings from a large auditorium to a small, cramped room where dozens of Detroiters are locked out each week.

When I asked him about it two months ago, he flippantly suggested I mind my own business. (I am a Detroit taxpayer)

For those who do speak during public comment period, Pugh limits each resident to one minute – sometimes 90 seconds if they’re lucky. Anyone who speaks longer risks the boot from over-zealous police, unless the speaker is complimenting the council or delivering a long prayer.

For Pugh, criticism is tough to swallow. And that’s problematic when the city is widely divided over tackling unprecedented budget problems.

When the city needed a charismatic leader capable of bridging divisions, Pugh patronized callers and hosts on radio shows and sent demeaning messages to critics on social media. In one case, he lost his temper on the Craig Fahle Show on WDET, berating a caller who politely suggested the city could benefit from state assistance. His response, which included threats to end the interview, led to a follow-up show.

Pugh’s temper again flared last week when a young Automotive News intern suggested on Twitter that the council president was a disappointing leader.

“Josh, do you think the folks at Automotive News would be interested in your inaccurate, offensive commentary? Just curious?” Pugh tweeted.

After no response, Pugh wrote: “it seems the cat got your tongue or maybe someone cautioned u about spreading BS & lies about someone who might be watching.”

Although Pugh earned a generous living as a reporter, he has become one of the media’s toughest critics when he’s in the spotlight. It’s not unusual for him to call up reporters’ bosses and complain about news coverage or publicly denounce news agencies with whom he disagrees.

For a former newsman who pledged to create a more transparent government, Pugh has worked a lot behind closed doors. Late last year, Bing had an urgent message for the council: The city was nearly broke. Instead of holding the meeting in public, Pugh decided to hold the meeting privately to avoid spreading fear, he later told me.

That closed-door meeting, which attorneys said was illegal, formed the basis of the state takeover. In the proceeding months, Pugh met privately with state officials to reach a controversial consent deal while publicly decrying the plan.

The council president also blocked media attempts to access details of the budget crisis, which showed how city leaders overspent money and squandered opportunities to avoid insolvency.

The city’s budget problems are so severe that leaders recently responded by laying off firefighters, cutting funding to the police department and shutting off street lights in increasingly dangerous neighborhoods.

The $250 million in savings left no inch of the city without massive cuts and layoffs – except for Pugh’s office, which retained its four employees last week. Never mind that the city’s council is one of the most expensive in the country.

During the budget squabbles, Pugh was showing up to work with stylish new suits, shoes and an eclectic collection of glasses while his house was in foreclosure. His financial position prompted the Detroit Free Press to withdrawal its support for Pugh.

“It’s simply unreasonable for Detroiters to trust him with their city’s finances after he so negligently managed his own,” the Free Press wrote.

Over the past year, Pugh quickly shed weight under an intense workout and diet regime, and he’s not shy about showing off his new physique. Two weeks ago, despite growing fear about the city’s future, Pugh released a lengthy weight-loss video in which he often displayed his chiseled abs and chest.

Surely there’s a more tactful way of teaching weight loss and nutrition.

So what’s next for Pugh, the once-rising star in city politics? He’s not running for re-election, he said, but is considering a bid for mayor. Political insiders, however, believe Pugh will bail out because he’s unlikely a viable candidate after a disappointing first term.

In the meantime, Pugh and the council have a tough task ahead. Detroit is rapidly losing residents and its tax base. Violence is nonstop. Thousands of drug addicts roam the streets, their only home. Public education is abysmal. The city is fighting for its surivival.

This is the time Detroit would benefit from the reform-minded Pugh who campaigned on bold promises to restore honor and competence to the city council. The city’s 740,000 residents are counting on him.

The discipline, charisma and intelligence are there.

But is Pugh finally up for the task?

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.