Newly elected and ready to work, Charles Pugh talks with media on election night. BTL photo: Andrew Potter

President Pugh

Detroit elects openly gay political newbie to top council spot

By Jason A. Michael

DETROIT - Change has come. Five new faces will grace the council table in Detroit next year. Voters elected newcomers to the top three spots and placed an openly gay man at the head of the table. Charles Pugh is to be the new president of the Detroit city council.

"Hello, Detroit, we are number one," Pugh said at his victory party Tuesday night at Seldom Blues restaurant. He took to the stage in time to have his acceptance speech televised live on the 11 o'clock news, waving his index finger in the air and smiling effusively. "This change has been long overdue," he said.

Yes, Detroiters are tired of seeing their elected leaders on television sitting in courtrooms instead of council chambers. And they're tired of seeing them in council chambers acting like they're in a zoo. Name calling, playing dress-up in glittering tiaras and breaking into song - the shenanigans must stop. It's time to bring dignity and class back to the council, and Detroiters elected a gay man to lead the way.

"This campaign is a referendum on the politics of the past," said Rev. Charles Adams III of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, Pugh's pastor, in introducing his parishioner. "I thank God for a politician like Brother Charles Pugh. He never stopped being who he was all the way through."

And, surprisingly to many, it didn't stop him from winning. Even Pugh was expecting greater flack to be made over his sexual orientation during the campaign than what actually was. Perhaps it was Adams who helped him get the endorsement from the Council of Baptist Pastors, something that caused him to take pause.

"That is something that I wasn't expecting," Pugh told supporters at a fundraiser last week sponsored by the gay social group Billionaire Boys' Club. "Not only wasn't I expecting their endorsement, I was expecting them to ban together to oppose me. It's interesting how far we've come with this issue."

Pugh told the crowd that he wouldn't forget them, and the rest of the LGBT community, once elected.

"I want you to know I will be thinking of you and these faces at the council table," he said. "I have always tried to represent you with dignity."

He also made mention of his uncle and his uncle's partner, who have been together for 38 years and helped raise him.

"I am 38, and so I have seen stability and strength my whole life," he said. "I've watched these two men be who they are, and be pillars of our family for so long. I'm really just doing what I've seen."

The reporter becomes the story

Even if the gay issue failed to slow him down as he sailed through the primary with a 10,000 vote lead, there were other issues looming. Two weeks ago, news broke that Pugh was facing foreclosure on his downtown condo. Suddenly, his former media comrades turned on him and the coverage got ugly. Saying his personal financial mismanagement made him unqualified to sit on the council, both the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News withdrew their endorsements. And Ken Cockrel, Jr., the current council president, came down hard on his challenger to any reporter with a microphone or notebook in hand.

"This campaign has taught me a lot about myself," Pugh said at Seldom Blues. "At times this experience has been trying, especially these last two weeks. But like you, Detroit, I am a fighter and a survivor. We made it through the storm."

Made it with an 8,000 vote lead, that is. Cockrel, meanwhile, came in fourth.

Pugh didn't gloat though.

"Today we begin a new spirit of collaboration on that city council, and as the leader of this new body I promise a spirit of cooperation every day, higher standards of ethics and civility and common sense," he said. "But more important than all of this, a greater respect for you, Detroit."

Scrutiny sure to intensify

In the stirring close to his speech, Pugh did what candidates are known for: he made a promise.

"Many people have characterized my decision to leave two jobs to serve the city I love as risky," he continued. "But I'm here to tell you tonight it was a risk worth taking. I thank you for making me your new city council president, and I will not let you down."

Pugh was talking to his beloved Detroit, but he's certainly being watched by eyes outside of the city. His election, and how well he subsequently performs his duties, could have national impact.

"I think it's a victory for the LGBT community overwhelmingly," said Sharon J. Lettman, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition. "I think it really demonstrates that when a community knows a candidate and his issues and what he stands for, that supercedes all other issues that people may feel are controversial. I think it moves us much closer to full equality when members of our community are not judged on anything else but their ability to serve as elected leaders."

Hank Millbourne, president of the Black Pride Society here in Detroit, says Pugh's election could play a big part in changing the city's image.

"I think it improves our reputation as a more open city," Millbourne said. "We'll have to wait to see how this plays out nationally. But I certainly do think it moves Detroit up the rung in terms of being viewed as more tolerant and more accepting of people."

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