While gay rights activists are still reeling from Tuesday’s marriage defeat in Maine, Detroit's LGBT residents are celebrating in force, with the groundbreaking victory of Charles Pugh, the embattled city’s first openly gay and black city council president.
Pugh, 38, was a popular former Fox 2 News anchor and radio personality on FM 98 WJLB in Detroit. He left his two jobs in April and began his bid for city council.
“It was time for new leadership,” Pugh says. “As a native Detroiter, I was embarrassed every time our city was in the national spotlight for the absurd antics the previous council administration was casting on Detroit. Instead of sitting by watching our city be destroyed, I chose to take action.”
Pugh is referring to the numerous scandals that have plagued Detroit in recent memory -- namely the 2008 resignation of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was caught up in a text message scandal and extramarital affair with his chief of staff and pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, for which he served 99 days in jail. Detroit also faced national public embarrassment as city council members’ brawls, arguments, and over-the-top antics were captured and televised nationwide.
Pugh made a strong showing in the city council primary earlier this year, despite being openly gay in a city not necessarily known for its embrace of LGBT people. Pugh was endorsed by the AME Ministerial Alliance, the Council of Baptist Pastors, and several individual pastors. “They called and said they were with me,” Pugh says. “They told me that I was what was needed to move this city forward.”
Pugh even sat down with Pastor Marvin L. Winans, an influential local religious figure who has publicly spoken out against homosexuality. “Pastor Winans is a known agitator when it comes to LGBT issues,” Pugh says. “I was expecting him to be combative on that issue. Ironically, he was combative on the celebrity issue. He thought the only reason people were voting for me was because I am a ‘so-called’ celebrity. The gay issue did not come up.”
Over five years ago, Pugh publicly announced his sexuality on-air. Pugh says he always had the support of his bosses, but Detroit residents were initially shocked, as there had never been an openly gay black public figure in the blue-collar city’s history.
But as Pugh continued working as a news anchor and speaking publicly about LGBT issues, Detroiters rallied behind him.
“It was amazing to see how people treated me once I came out,” Pugh says. “No one gave me any grief or said anything derogatory. As I ran for city council I didn’t stop talking about who I was either. I talked about it in interviews, on television, on the radio. I mentioned it as often as possible.”
Pugh ran a smooth campaign until late October, when local media outlets reported that Pugh’s condominium was in foreclosure. Critics questioned whether his financial problems would prevent him form effectively handling Detroit’s current multimillion-dollar budget deficits. The city’s top two newspapers, The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, rescinded their endorsements of Pugh.
“There were some people who may have lost confidence because some people were not able to separate how I handle my personal finances from they way I would handle business finances,” Pugh says. “But, in the end, Detroiters had my back. In these dire economic times, people recognized that I was just like them. I became a real person.”
Already, Pugh has begun meeting with the current city council president and other members to discuss his plans for Detroit. “First, I want to have a better spirit of cooperation between council members, where we have civility at the table and a higher standard of ethics,” Pugh says. “I also plan to get a handle on how we spend our demolition dollars better. We are spending them all over the place. We have to get rid of the abandoned homes that are an eyesore in our city.”