Bankole: Pugh popularity backfires on voters

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

When TV news anchor Charles Pugh decided to leave the anchor chair at Fox 2 to run for a seat on the Detroit City Council, he won, receiving the highest number of votes among the candidates. That automatically made him the president of the council in 2009 though he brought no legislative experience or background of the inner workings of city government.

Instead what he brought in large part was the fame he had garnered from years of being in front of the camera at Fox 2, as well as his charm and passion to help Detroiters as he repeatedly said on the campaign trail. Voters chose him because he was popular and because he said he wanted to enter the political fray and help make city government work for an electorate that was already disappointed in the Kwame Kilpatrick corruption scandal that was unraveling.

I recalled sitting down with him and talking politics on the patio of the Starbucks at Mack and Woodward one Sunday afternoon before the election. Was he ever going to consider running for mayor, I asked, because his name repeatedly came up as a potential candidate. He kept the answer close to his chest, only regurgitating campaign talking points.

But one thing was clear. Every other car that stopped at the light would honk and either the driver or passenger would shout his name in endearment.

That was the Pugh who became the leader of the Detroit City Council. Last week, when Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced charges against the former council president for allegedly molesting a 14-year-old boy more than a decade ago, we saw a different Pugh. U.S. Marshals arrested him at his home in New York the morning the charges were announced.

Pugh, 44, is charged with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which carries a penalty of up to life in prison, and three counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, punishable by up to 15 years. This development comes less than a year after Detroit Public Schools settled a federal lawsuit in a case involving an 18-year-old who had accused Pugh of sexual harassment.

The allegations against Pugh raise questions about voters’ desire to elect candidates solely based on their popularity as if elections are popularity contests instead of who is best equipped to make government work.

Bernice Smith, a community activist, said if not for his TV news reputation, Pugh wouldn’t have gotten elected.

“I don’t believe all those seniors would have voted for him if these allegations had come out about his involvement with kids,” Smith said.

Political consultant Adolph Mongo said given how Pugh’s popularity has backfired on voters, it is instructive for those who find celebrity candidates more appealing than those without name recognition. He also said people should let the justice system play itself out in the case.

“Martha Reeves should never have been elected to city council. People elect folks because of their celebrity status. Detroit is not the only city that elects celebrities,” Mongo said. “Look at Jesse Ventura, a wrestler who was elected governor of Minnesota.”

Mongo added, “We should not blame voters for electing Pugh because they thought they were doing the right thing at that time. In Wayne County right now we have former county executive Robert Ficano running for judge. If he is elected, does that mean Wayne County voters are stupid?”

Sterling Jackson, 54, who works at General Motors Co., said Pugh didn’t help his cause by leaving Detroit when allegations of misconduct were raised.

“For him to run away to New York and leave his job without any explanation was bad. He should have manned up and accept responsibility and then move on.”

“He made Detroit look bad,” Jackson said. “He didn’t appreciate what Detroit gave him. He would have done more good by being on TV reading the news than getting into politics.”

For Heaster Wheeler, former executive director of the Detroit NAACP, the allegations against Pugh are disappointing. Given that another once promising black political leader, Kilpatrick, went to jail for abuse of office, the Pugh case, though different, could also land him in jail for a long time.

“I don’t think it has any implications on African-American elected leadership. President Barack Obama is the example African-Americans look up to, not Charles Pugh,” Wheeler said. “It is an unfortunate event and honestly I hope it is not true.”

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.