Charles Pugh: An In-Depth Look At The Rise And Fall Of A Local LGBT Hero

Jason A. Michael
By | 2014-02-19T09:00:00-04:00 February 19th, 2014|Michigan, News|

Then Detroit City Council President-Elect on election night in 2009. BTL file photo: Andrew Potter

His beginnings were humble, if not downright horrific. His mother was murdered when he was only three. At seven, his father shot and killed himself in the bedroom across the hall from his, leaving little Charles to call 911.
He was raised by his grandmother and excelled at academics. He graduated with honors from Murray Wright High School and received a scholarship to the University of Missouri. He studied broadcast journalism and worked in three smaller markets – in Kansas, Indiana and Virginia – before landing a job with Fox 2-Detroit, not only his hometown but a major market.
He quickly became a popular on-air personality. He advanced in time to the anchor desk, co-hosting the weekend morning show. But Pugh always wanted to do more, be more, give more. So in addition to his full-time job with Fox, he took on the news director spot at radio station WJLB, offering up the morning news weekdays from 6-10 a.m. and even hosting a Sunday evening talk show on the station.
In 2004, Pugh publicly came out in an interview with BTL before hosting a Detroit town hall meeting on homophobia.
“I’ve worked hard to make myself a role model for young men in this city, and young people in general,” Pugh said at the time. “A lot of people do look at me as a role model since I’m a Detroit Public Schools graduate, someone who’s a college graduate, someone who has been able to secure a solid, forward-moving career, and also someone who has a pretty stable private life.”

Call To Public Service
Surprising many, Pugh gave up his “solid, forward-moving career” – it’s been reported he earned an estimated $240,000 a year with Fox 2 – and signed off from WJLB to run for a seat on the Detroit City Council in 2009.
“Detroit is frustrated and embarrassed,” he said in announcing his candidacy in an interview with Between The Lines. “We need people who are going to make us proud and, at least, that we respect for the job that they do.”
His campaign was not without struggle. He was openly gay, yet he managed to secure an endorsement from the Council of Baptist Pastors. He lost endorsements from both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press late in the game, however, when it was revealed that his Brush Park condominium was in foreclosure. Then City Council President Ken Cockrel called on Detroiters not to vote for him.
But they didn’t listen. Instead they voted for him in huge numbers, giving him an 8,000 vote lead over his closer competitor. The fact that Detroit elected an openly-gay man as president of the city council made national news. He received a feature in Time magazine. The New York Times followed him around on the day he was sworn in.
Leading the council would prove a bigger challenge than being elected to it though. Detroit, still reeling from political scandals involving Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, was now teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Though Pugh promised a new era of civility on the council, relations between the council and Mayor Dave Bing were contentious. The two sides argued over severe budgets cuts and deciding how to best keep Detroit out of bankruptcy. In the end, they couldn’t.
Pugh’s tenure on the council proved to be controversial as his personal problems often overshadowed any principled leadership he tried to provide. In February 2010, Pugh crashed his city-owned car on a Friday night and didn’t call the cops to report it. Instead, he drove the vehicle, which had two flat tires, home and waited three days to notify police. In January 2011, Pugh was forced to close down his Pugh & You: Detroit Move Forward fund after media outlets compared it to Kilpatrick’s highly controversial Civic Fund, proven by federal prosecutors to be nothing more than a slush fund.
The following January, Pugh, facing foreclosure for a third time, announced he was walking away from his condo. And in March of the same year, Pugh made perhaps his most controversial move. In the midst of the city’s financial crisis, Pugh released a workout video on YouTube showing him shirtless and with six-pack abs. The video left many to wonder why Pugh was more concerned with his body than Detroit’s business.
On LGBT issues, Pugh did manage to rack up some points. He employed a largely gay and lesbian staff, he started the Detroit Safe Schools initiative, which provided training to public schools on LGBT concerns, he appointed openly gay attorney Alicia Skillman to the Detroit Ethics Board, he participated in the Hunger 4 Equality hunger strike, he worked toward creating an LGBT business district within the city limits, and he traveled with an elite group of gay leaders to meet President Barack Obama at a White House LGBT Pride Month reception.
“The two things that he led that I participated with, the Detroit Safe Schools initiative and the LGBT district meetings, I know that those are projects that he lent his energy to on non-work time,” said Curtis Lipscomb, executive director of KICK. “So that work would have had significant impact had we been able to move past the steps that we engaged in.”
Though at one time polls showed him among the top three contenders in the 2013 mayoral election, Pugh, who had previously expressed an interest in both the mayor’s office and a seat in Congress, declared last February that he was leaving politics and returning to journalism.
“I think the move from being a commentator and an analyst of governmental policy and process represents a very important skill set, but it doesn’t immediately translate into being a frontline policymaker,” former city councilwoman and current Wayne State University professor Sheila Cockrel told the Free Press. “I think he was sincere in his wish to do great things for Detroit.”
One of Pugh’s signature accomplishments, literally, was the Charles Pugh Leadership Forum, a mentoring program he founded at his alma mater, which had since been renamed the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men. There, Pugh and members of his staff met regularly with students to prepare them for college, help them secure jobs and conduct themselves as young professionals.
“The purpose of the program is to emphasize leadership among young men, particularly young men from the inner city of Detroit,” Pugh staffer DeAndree Watson told the Free Press, going on to say that the program was “not only about preparing for college, discussing academic excellence or professional etiquette. It’s also important to have frank and open dialogue about issues that are facing them growing up in the community.”
In looking into the program, it’s clear it did a lot of good. Former Frederick Douglass student Tevin Hill, who is now a sophomore at Bowling Green University in Ohio, said Pugh and his staff continued to help him even after he graduated. Having a difficult first year at college, Pugh and other mentors actually tutored Hill via Skype. And Pugh personally sent Hill $100 to help pay for books.
“My own flesh and blood was telling me I was going to fail,” Hill told the Free Press. “They (Pugh and staff) lifted me up and made sure I got through my freshman year.”

Lapse In Judgment
On May 31, Pugh made a controversial move that many feel was highly unethical. He threw an end-of-year pizza party on the last day of classes. Later that day, Pugh decided to help one of his mentees – an 18-year-old we’ll call “X” for the purposes of protecting his identity – prepare for a job interview. Pugh took X to Madison Heights to pick out some new dress clothes and purchase him a cell phone. This is the point at which many say Pugh crossed the line.
In December, Madison Heights police released the full text message exchanges between X and Pugh to the press, a portion of which follow.
“Can I trust you?” Pugh asked X later that night.
“Trust me to what?”
“Keep our friendship our business.”
“LOL. Sure!”
“If I can trust you, then the sky is the limit for you, sir. You can have whatever you need or want. Just ask. And most times you won’t have to.”
Pugh continued his back and forth with X, asked about what video game systems he liked and what he could purchase to entice X into coming over to his “crib.” But before long, Pugh escalated things. He told X about what he called his “straight friend special.” It was an offer of $100 for solo videos featuring masturbation.
“I’m very generous to my straight friends I can trust,” Pugh said. “Those with big mouths miss out.”
“So if I f*** a girl and record it, then let you see it I can get $100?”
“Is this just between us, bro? I can’t have you showin’ people our texts or tellin’ folks, bro. This is some grown man shit. LOL.”
“LOL. Yes. This is between us.”
X initially voiced no surprise over the request, but Pugh continued to show his concern for privacy.
“Dude, if anyone finds out about this I’m dead,” Pugh sent. “So please keep this between us. My straight friends who do it see it as a major convenience. It can help you have EXTRA money all the time.”
X made no promises, but the next day, June 1, he initiated contact with Pugh, telling him he needed $160 for a hotel room for after prom. Pugh again encouraged X to make an X-rated video for him and gave him instructions on how to do so, such as taking a shade off a lamp and placing it in front of him and encouraging X to make noise when he was about to orgasm.
Despite the instructions, X did not immediately make the video. But he contacted Pugh the following day, June 2, again asking for help.
“I need games and money,” he said in his opening text.
“I got you,” Pugh told him, encouraging him yet again to make the video. “Just quit being so damn scared.”
“I’m making the vid when I get home,” X told him. “I’m serious as f***.”
“You guys need to know how to WORK the guys with power and money who have crushes on y’all,” Pugh told X. “You got the HOOKUP, bro. You just don’t know how to work it. You could get anything you want from me.”
It wasn’t until the following night though, June 3, that X texted Pugh and told him to pick up the video. Pugh rushed over, picked up the video, which was on an iPod, and was texting X again within hours. Pugh was exuberant, saying it was the best video anyone had ever made for him and that he achieved orgasm four times while watching it. Then Pugh pushed the envelope, again promising a video game system and games in exchange for X allowing him to perform oral sex on him.
“I guarantee it’s the BEST head you’ll ever have,” Pugh promised. “Part of the reason is because the other head had no money or gifts attached to it. The MAIN reason is because my head game is SICK!!”
Pugh also admitted to having liked X for some time.
“Truth is, I had a crush on you all year,” he said. “I just couldn’t say or do anything about it until [you finished school]. I think you kinda knew though.”
“Yes, I did.”
X went on to state that he believed he was already entitled to the video game system he wanted.
“My vid was worth the game,” he told Pugh.
“LOL, Dude, I spent $310 on clothes and shoes and belt, plus $150 for that phone then $160. So, bro, that video paid for more than $600 worth of sh**!!!”
Once again, Pugh pressed X to allow him to perform oral sex on him in exchange for the game.
“You’re gonna enjoy THE F*** out of earning the gaming system and games!!” he said. “You’ll see.”
But X never got the chance to decide if he wanted to go that far. His mom had gotten hip to the financial help Pugh has been providing X and sensed something was amiss. She not only became angered, but according to messages X sent to a friend, she became hysterical.
“My momma’s having nervous breakdown and shit, and it’s crazy,” X said. “She’s cryin’ and yellin’ and screamin’ and shit, actin’ retarded.”
By the next day, X tells Pugh that their relationship has come to an end.
“Everything between us has to stop,” he said. “My mom knows what is up and is going to report you. Don’t text back.”
“Tell your mom to call me,” Pugh responded. “We can work something out. This is crazy. I just wanted to help you.”
X then advised Pugh on how to appease his mother.
“You have to act like you have never been to our house and you can’t mention that iPod,” he said. “Call her now and talk to her.”
But Pugh could not. He was texting while sitting at the council table. Instead he pledged to call her in 20 minutes.”
X’s mother didn’t care to talk to Pugh though. Deciding she was more interested in speaking to the press, she called Channel 7. Pugh actually telephoned while the news station was there, and X’s mother let the reporter listen into the call and tape it.
In the days that followed, Pugh attempted to lay low. But that didn’t last for long. He was, of course, approached by Channel 7 and asked to comment. Instead, he reached out once again to X’s mother, texting her on June 17.
“Can you please help me?” he asked. “Channel 7 says they’re using your interview to try and destroy me. (And drag the city through another scandal.) It’s so sad. Please help me if you can.”
Getting no response, he texted her again the following day.
“This will destroy my chances of ever working in Detroit again and would cause me to have to resign from council. Please can you call them and ask them not to use your interview AT ALL. I’ve ended the program at Fred D. I’ll do anything else you want me to. Please don’t allow them to move forward with your interview. This would DETROY me. Please, Ms. ******, I beg you.”
Growing ever more desperate, Pugh texts her again two days later.
“Please,” he persisted. “I can meet y’all someplace for dinner. Maybe we can go to church together on Sunday and pray together. Is there anything we can work out?”
Ms. X, however, was already working with an attorney.

The Fallout
The rest of the story is well known. Channel 7 aired their story and soon the other networks followed suit. Pugh requested a month-long medical leave from council, which Detroit Emergency Manager Keith Orr denied. Instead, he stripped Pugh of his pay and benefits when Pugh failed to show by the appointed deadline he gave. And then Pugh disappeared into the night. It would be three months before he would officially submit his resignation to Orr. By that time he had relocated to an undisclosed location and all Detroiters were left with were lingering questions.
Some of those questions were answered in December when Madison Heights Police released the content of the police report and the text messages to the media. But the full details have not been disclosed until now. Technically, we now know that Pugh did nothing illegal – the young man was 18 and had completed the last day of his senior year before Pugh approached him – and the Oakland County prosecutor’s office declined to file any charges against him.
Confronted with the details of Pugh’s interaction with X, public reaction has been mixed. Community activist John Trimble is nonchalant about the whole affair.
“I think a lot of this controversy was fueled by the mother more so than the young man,” Trimble said. “Was it inappropriate? Absolutely. Was the young man old enough to make his own decision to contribute to this situation? Absolutely.”
Others, meanwhile, aren’t taking the revelations so lightly. Johnny Jenkins worked with Pugh in creating training for the Safe Schools Initiative.
“Although this young man was 18 it appears as if it was planned,” Jenkins said. “It was very manipulative of a youth at a very vulnerable age. They’re kind of like a livewire when it comes to their sexuality period. So to have some older adult come take advantage of that is disturbing. And the fact that he put himself in a place that he’s working with youth, with young black men, is even more disturbing. He was considered a leader in our community and a highly visible one, so it’s disturbing on all those levels and it makes life difficult for all black gay men in Detroit.”
Lipscomb said that Pugh’s problems will not hurt the Detroit LGBT community’s efforts to move forward.
“You can’t say that if a man cheats on his wife, that all men are bad,” he said. “You can’t say that. That’s ridiculous. So you can’t say that if a gay man has an indiscretion it impacts the entire community. That’s wrong,”.
The question now is, is there any future for Pugh in his hometown, and can the fallen hero ever redeem himself?
“There are a lot of deep wounds he left behind with people who trusted him, who had high expectations for him and he failed them on every level,” Jenkins said. “I think everybody should have a chance at redemption, but you have to put the work into it and he’s not here to put the work into anything.”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.