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Step Up or Shut Up: Pugh on the Hunger Strike and on Detroit Politics

By | 2012-08-30T09:00:00-04:00 August 30th, 2012|Michigan, News|

“Stop complaining if you’re not doing anything to change it. Step up or shut up.” That’s what Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh has to say about folks who sit on the sidelines in any community.
His new Step Up or Shut Up campaign is his push to recruit citizens, especially minorities, to get involved in local politics. “It’s for the Detroit LGBT community to offer themselves as candidates and to serve on the boards. There are so many other ways to serve like block clubs and neighborhood associations. We need people who are in the mix, with sweat on their brows, working to improve what’s good and to improve what’s bad. I want them at the drawing board. I want them at the decision making table. I want them at the ballot box. I want them at the pews, in the neighborhoods as business owners, as employers as students.”
He said that Detroit is “a work in progress,” that requires everyone to be involved.

The Gay-ing Of Detroit

The busy City Council President, who is the first openly gay elected official in the city, took a day to participate in the Hungry 4 Equality 100 day hunger strike. Strikers, in succession, go 24 hours without food and they sit on a stage in the window of Affirmations for the day to showcase their support for equal rights.
“This effort was creative for collective effort so that ultimately people could raise their voice and say that equality is just that, it’s all people’s rights are equal, no more important than the other,” Pugh said. “I think that because we are such an advanced society we often forget that not everybody has the same rights.”
While much of the focus has been on Pugh’s council leadership and the challenges of Detroit’s harsh economy, Pugh has been involved in efforts in on behalf of his LGBT brothers and sisters. One on-going effort is the Detroit Safe Schools initiative which provides training to public school staff on important LGBT issues, including bullying. Pugh said that two schools have gone through training so far: Communications and Media Arts High School and Central High School.
He is also working with PFLAG Detroit to build their capacity to help families in the city. He’s brought PFLAG together with the Detroit Parent Network, who has committed to monthly LGBT engagement. He’s taken fliers to various locations through the city to attract parents to the PFLAG meetings and for people to get involved with leadership in both organizations. “There are zero GSAs [Gay Straight Alliances] in Detroit Public Schools,” he said. “We need these to open minds and open hearts, to cut down on drop outs. Kids are being verbally and physically abused. Kids are being kicked out of their homes because of it [being gay].”
In terms of his own experience being a gay public official, Pugh said he’s not had many problems. “We all get judged for lots of reasons, whether it’s an open judgment or an overt judgment – race, gender, orientation, how we dress, socio-economic status, our religion or lack thereof. So for me I can’t, if I’m going to be successful, worry about who is judging me.”
He added that “Jessie Jackson said excellence is the best deterrent to racism. Well [I say] progressive action is the best deterrent to homophobia.”

Detroit Challenges

The biggest challenges Pugh faces on City Council are financial.
“Dwindling revenues and growing costs is a major challenge for cities across the state of Michigan,” he said. “There’s an aging infrastructure. We have roughly 11,000 employees and 20,000 retirees and that is a heavy responsibility.
“Every single source of revenue is going down. Our major source is income tax. We’ve lost population. We’ve got unemployment, and foreclosures. It’s a prescription for not having enough resources.”
He also said, “The crime rate bothers me and saddens me. It challenges us.”
Setting the budget is the top priority of city council, a task which has been a huge challenge for Detroit. “When we get to the point we ask ‘what are the core services,’ it’s a difficult conversation to have. We have to set the police and fire budgets, but we also have to keep the lights on.”
One way Detroit has saved money is by privatizing some services. “It’s a case by case challenge. Privatizing doesn’t always save money,” Pugh said. “I’m not anti-privatization, but it should be done the right way, not for a short term savings. If a credible, data-based case can be made I’m not opposed to it.”
One big debate in the city has been the threat of having an Emergency Financial Manager instituted by the state. In the face of such threats, Mayor Dave Bing agreed to a consent decree with the state that Pugh disagreed with. “We don’t need an intervention. We need assistance, but we don’t need a take over,” the council president said. “We can manage our own way through this.
“…Because of bad decision making in the Mayor’s office we were on a collision course… He should have had a deficit-elimination plan…If I were Mayor I would have been much more proactive in working to create a deficit elimination plan that was sustainable and worked. There was not enough focused effort by the Mayor’s office.”

Detroit Successes

Pugh said that city council has taken steps towards improved financial solvency, including passing a balanced budget with money set aside towards deficit elimination. They have ordered a mid-year financial review to determine if city administrators are staying on task. And they have instituted a collective purchasing policy for supplies, where all departments are required to purchase things like copiers, office supplies, cleaning supplies and other necessities with bulk pricing unless they can find those items cheaper elsewhere.
Something Pugh hopes will make a big financial impact is a partnership formed with Compuware to collect unpaid city taxes. “Reverse commuters and employers are not collecting the Detroit tax, and there are businesses in the city not collecting. Individual filers are not paying local taxes,” Pugh said.
Increased development is also expected to raise city revenue. “Development projects we’ve approved and made better, the building of Whole Foods Market and being part of that effort,” are things Pugh is proud of. He also serves on the Riverfront Conservancy Board where he is part of the remediation and continued progress of building up a beautiful shoreline where visitors feel safe and welcome. And remediation of the Uniroyal site is another development that gives Pugh hope for the city.

Change From Journalist To Public Figure

Pugh was born and raised in Detroit. He left from 1989 to 1999 to go to college and to work as a journalist in several other cities across the country before returning to the hometown he knew and loved. Up until 2009 when he began his campaign for Council, Pugh was a journalist, well known for his seat on the Fox 2 News desk. And while the change from journalist to politician has been rewarding, it had some challenges too.
“For the first year and a half I was uncomfortable saying what my opinion was and having a vote,” he said. “As a journalist I was used to keeping my opinion to myself and not being vocal. I had to un-learn that. But I learned to say very clearly why I am voting the way I was.
“Having journalists do what I think are unfair stories about me is tough. Having personal things reported on is also tough. As a journalist you’re in the public eye but you still have a private life. But when you’re elected you don’t have a personal life.
“Ever since I was 20 years old I’ve been on TV, but I was always taught to cling closely to your phone number and personal address. Some of my colleagues had stalkers, a couple were dangerous. You protect your private information. But the exact opposite happens when you run for office. I went from being guarded tightly to everything being out there, like my address, my phone, my salary being public.”
Other than the privacy concerns, the transition has overall been good for Pugh. “I went from being in the media to politics and it required a lot of hard work, but everything does. There’s a lot of similarities between both professions. You have to do a lot of writing, a lot of research. You care about facts and look at all sides of the issue… You have knowledge of the city, knowledge of whose who, who is important and why… A lot of it is common sense and knowing your community.”

Future Plans

Now that Pugh has sat in the council president seat, he had decided to change direction once his term is up. “If I run for anything it will be for mayor,” he said. “It’s definitely something I’m considering.”
When asked what would be different being mayor that being council president, Pugh explained, “The main thing is on council you’re a legislature. You can’t manage city services, you can only manage your own staff. You pass ordinances, you approve things. As mayor you administer. You hire, disciple and fire officials. Ultimately you are the main person to make things happen.”
While he considers running for the top leadership position in the City, Pugh hopes others will get involved in leadership as well. “A lot of the restrictions are self-imposed. Most people just don’t try out of fear, fear or inadequacy. But the reality is they do have a lot to offer.” Hence the Step Up or Shut Up campaign.

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