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 could be charming, temperamental, progressive, juvenile. Born in a hardscrabble neighborhood 45 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 was, no doubt, an inspiring figure. A symbol of hope.
But during one of Detroit’s most difficult times, when Detroit needed a leader the most, Pugh bullied and patronized critics, was often condescending at the council table and drove a wedge between the council and Mayor Dave Bing. When large, passionate crowds began turning up at council meetings to protest a state takeover of the city’s finances, Pugh moved regular council meetings from a large auditorium to a small, cramped room where dozens of Detroiters were routinely locked out.
The charisma that won over many Detroiters turned sour in the face of criticism. He patronized callers and hosts on radio and TV shows and posted demeaning rants 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 also flared 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, his three-story home near downtown was foreclosed shortly before taking office. But his closet was stocked with designer clothes and shoes – an expensive, contemporary collection he liked to show off. As council president, he made $77,000 a year and receives health care, a pension, a city-owned car filled up with city-paid gas and a city-issued cell phone.
His financial troubles 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.
After becoming council president, Pugh shed weight under an intense workout and diet regime, and came to work in new suit jackets and bow ties. Despite growing fear about the city’s future in March last year, Pugh released a lengthy weight-loss video in which he often displayed his chiseled abs and chest.
Constituents complained that Pugh had lost touch with Detroit’s unique problems. In March, a Free Press survey found that 89% of Detroiters disapproved of the council.
When Pugh announced he wasn’t running for re-election in January, he revealed in interviews that he didn’t have the nerve for politics and the constant criticism that comes with it.
“I thought I could help move the city in a positive direction,” Pugh said at the time.
Still, he said, he felt like he was making a difference as a mentor for kids. Pugh created the Male Leadership Academy at the Frederick Douglass Academy and met weekly with high school students.
Then came news that Pugh was accused of “an inappropriate relationship” with one of those high school students. The student’s mother said Pugh lavished her son with cash, a $350 cellphone and clothes for the prom. It was later revealed that Pugh paid the teenager to pose nude in a video.
Pugh went into hiding in June 2013, and when he refused to return, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr removed Pugh from the council.
In November 2015, a jury awarded the victim $250,000 in a civil case. Pugh was not criminally charged.
Now Pugh, the normally gregarious council president who had sparked new hope for Detroit, is facing 5 to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy while Pugh was a Fox 2 reporter.
In June, he was arrested in New York City, where he had been living since disappearing in 2013.
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.