Catherine Pugh had been preparing for this moment her entire life.
“Y’all look excited!” a beaming Pugh, 66, said to a loud procession of cheers from the audience, packed in the expansive Radisson Hotel Baltimore Downtown-Inner Harbor ballroom Tuesday.
At 10:25 p.m. on election night, Congressman Elijah Cummings — who won his reelection bid — announced it: “We have a new mayor.”
In two of Baltimore City’s most highly anticipated election races, voters threw their support behind Democrats Pugh, who represented Maryland’s 40th District for three terms in the state Senate, for mayor and Zeke Cohen for 1st District councilman.
As of Wednesday’s press time, Pugh won with 119,204 votes (57.1 percent). Republican Alan Walden, a former WBAL news anchor and longtime Jewish Baltimore resident, and Green Party nominee Joshua Harris, an international nonprofit communications specialist, captured 20,960 and 20,936 votes, respectively, or 10 percent each. Write-in candidates, including former Baltimore Mayor Shelia Dixon, earned 22.8 percent of the vote at 47,598.
In the 1st District race, Cohen, 31, won in a landslide, defeating Republican challenger Matthew McDaniel, 28, by garnering 66.5 percent of the vote with 11,491 votes. Another Jewish council candidate, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, 27, won the race for the District 5 seat, collecting 92 percent of the vote against write-in candidate Derrick Lennon with 13,763 votes.
Prior to bringing Baltimore’s 50th mayor on stage, Cummings said that Pugh has been readying herself for the role throughout her storied career and that she “is a woman who loves our great city.” He concluded that “she has done it all, but the most important thing is that her heart is in the right place.”
Pugh went on to speak not only about her lifelong work that has led up to her becoming mayor, but also about the need to re-establish what could perhaps be “the greatest city in the country.”
Her speech touched upon the 76,000 unemployed Baltimore residents who need jobs, the 3,000 homeless persons living on the street who need housing and the need for a more diverse and inclusive government as well as community policing that will allow for respect for the people and respect for the police as well.
“We know we have a lot of work to do,” Pugh declared.
In order to accomplish her goals, Pugh told the JT that she will be looking to the likes of “one of our youngest and most dynamic members of my team,” referring to Schleifer.
Pugh said that, as she mentioned during her acceptance speech, it will be part of her job to empower her council members such as Schleifer, who continues to be a substantive leader in the Jewish community and region at large.
When asked how her win may further impact Jewish Baltimore, Pugh reiterated that her talk of diversity and inclusivity in her acceptance speech includes said community, “because this is a very large city, and I’m not just the mayor of one religion or race or culture, but all of them together.”
“One of the reasons I supported her,” Schleifer told the JT, “is that we share a lot of the same values and how we see the direction of the city moving, what’s needed to get us there.”
“We’re both community leaders and business owners,” Schleifer continued, noting that such “similar backgrounds” lead them to be equally vested in the growth of the city and that “Pugh will be a mayor of all communities in Baltimore.”
Baltimore City worker and Pugh supporter Tiffany Foster said Pugh’s connections to the state will help to embolden Baltimore’s representation on such a level, making Pugh “a bright light in a time of darkness” in reference to what Foster saw as an imminent presidential win by Donald Trump, who she did not support.
City Council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young was in concert with both Schleifer and Pugh in telling the JT that the new mayor “is for all communities and neighborhoods in Baltimore.”
Young stated that in order for Pugh to succeed, once again, all Baltimoreans — “including our Jewish friends,” he was sure to note — “will need to roll up our sleeves and get to it.”
Elsewhere in the city, Cohen, a Canton resident, and his supporters celebrated at Points South Latin Kitchen in Fells Point. He laid out his priorities for the city, which include creating more jobs for Baltimore’s youth, pushing for universal pre-kindergarten and advocating for affordable housing and a higher minimum wage.
“I think we’re going to bring a lot to the city in terms of fresh, new and innovative ideas,” Cohen told the JT. “I know there is a lot of untapped potential development and resources in the city, and I look forward to working with my fellow council members on bringing that change.”
At Cohen’s victory party, his supporters, many of whom were dressed in gold-and-purple T-Shirts with his name across the front, expressed their excitement about Cohen’s vision for the city.
Kent de Jong, 55, a 1st District native and Cohen supporter who resides in Greektown, said he hopes to see Cohen help improve Baltimore’s bus system and fill the mass transit void caused by the cancellation of the Red Line light rail project.
“I think Zeke has a natural born leadership instinct and leadership characteristic that really can help make this city a better place for everyone,” said de Jong, a retired engineer who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park. “He had a very inclusive, welcoming campaign [and that] is one of the things that drew me in.”
Joshua Thomson, 28, who has served in a full-time role as Cohen’s field director since June and also resides in the 1st District, said Cohen has fully focused his attention on the community’s needs.
“I am excited about the future, both for Zeke as a city councilman and what that also means for the 1st District,” Thomson said. “We have had a blast going out and speaking with the residents, hearing their concerns, so it’s something we have enjoyed with the two-way dialogue.”
Cohen also had plenty of star power in his corner on Tuesday night, with 2nd District City Councilman Brandon Scott and state Delegates Antonio Hayes and Sandy Rosenberg joining in the celebration.
Rosenberg, who sponsored Cohen through Teach For America, said he has offered Cohen advice at every turn throughout the election process as he prepares to take office.
“I said to him — as I say to remind myself and others — the best politics is to do the job well,” Rosenberg said. “That’s the next step for him.”
Thoughts from the Polls
While Baltimore City residents voted mostly along party lines, and that of the Democratic Party, not all voters backed the entire ticket.
Dottie Villa, a Baltimore resident and registered Democrat, said she backed Clinton for president and Walden for mayor on her ballot.
Villa said she voted for Walden, 80, because she is fed up with the stronghold Democrats have had in the city. No Republican has been elected to a city office position since Mayor Theodore McKeldin in 1963.
Villa said she could just not muster up the support to get behind Pugh or Dixon.
“I’m just sick of how this city is being run,” Villa said. “We’ve got to get rid of all the people in there and put somebody knew in [the mayor’s office].”
At most polls, a sense of distaste for the overall election could be felt, especially at Pikesville High School, where a growing contingent of voters were irate about what they saw as the facility’s gross lack of voting machines.
With lines lasting as long as 90 minutes or more, voters were leaving in droves, with some complaining the paucity led to a particularly challenging experience for the elderly, people with disabilities and those with children.
“The turnout has been massive,” said Reisterstown’s Andy Alperstein standing outside the polling station. “Voters have been complaining. And there’s no parking spots!”
Mike Heisler and his mother Roslyn Heisler were upset that there wasn’t enough focus on local politics in the election.
“For me, these issues are very important,” Roslyn said. “People are focused on the presidential election for obvious reasons, but we need to know more about what’s going on with the judges in the area too, because those are the kinds of things that touch people in the area on a more direct level.”
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