Charles Pugh gets his comeuppance

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The publicity photo of a fresh-faced Charles Pugh we ran in 2007.
  • The publicity photo of a fresh-faced Charles Pugh we ran in 2007.

It’s been a long and winding road, but for many critics of disgraced Detroit City Councilmember Charles Pugh, comeuppance is finally at hand.

It came in the form of clips from his pre-recorded deposition in a court case over a sex scandal involving a teen, in which he finally offered a mealy-mouthed apology: “I am embarrassed, and I am regretful for what happened.”

Pugh was referring to charges he offered to pay a Detroit Public Schools student intern for a sex tape. In ensuing court cases, courts handed down a $350,000 judgment against DPS, and now a $250,000 judgment against Pugh personally.

Now working as a restaurant manager in New York City, Pugh will have to work extra-hard to pay it off.

How the high and mighty have fallen.

Metro Times first encountered Pugh back in 2007, when one of our interns sat down with him for a breezy interview. His outspoken defense of being an “out” gay man resonated with us at the time. He declared: “Gay black men are always portrayed as a joke in the media and — damn it — I am not a fucking joke. I am a real person. I fall in love, I follow sports, I mess up sometimes, I eat, laugh and cry just like everybody else. I want to show that me being gay does not overpower any other part of my life.”

We weren’t alone in liking the guy. After winning a seat on Detroit City Council in 2009, our readers picked him as the “Best Newcomer to City Council.” Hopes were high that Pugh would do what he claimed he would do: usher in a new era of civility and professionalism.

But as Pugh occupied his seat on Detroit City Council, another side of his personality revealed itself. It seemed to dovetail with that old quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”

Power proved to be an elixir that brought out a brawling, petty, confrontational nature in Pugh that had been well-hidden from the public. He was instrumental in the firing of reporter Steve Neavling over a quote Pugh said was off the record, and a resulting heated exchange Pugh seems to have initiated. He badgered a journalism intern for an unflattering comment on Twitter, and seems to have been gunning for his dismissal. Unlike the friendly talking head on television, as a politician, Pugh came off as a strange combination of brittle and argumentative, willing to declare war over minor slights that any seasoned public figure would brush off.

Perhaps it was inexperience in city politics that got Pugh in hot water when he fired off a news release on city letterhead opposing the adoption of a new city charter. (Public officials are prohibited by state law from using taxpayer resources to argue a position on a candidates or proposed measures.) Critics charged that, as council president, Pugh was responsible for violating open meetings laws by conferring with then-Mayor Dave Bing behind closed doors. (Pugh had said an open meeting would “scare the hell out of people," and "that wouldn't be responsible.”)

But when it was revealed that Pugh had been sending salacious text messages to the teen intern assigned him by Detroit Public Schools, Pugh abruptly disappeared. He eventually quit his post after leaving the council hanging. He was later found in New York City, where he was working as a waiter.

Ever the climber, he has apparently worked his way up to manager since then.

Even as he fled his hometown in shame, Pugh’s combativeness didn’t end there. He asked the judge overseeing the sexting case to release the name of the accuser. Perhaps Pugh hoped the plaintiff, whose name was kept under wraps since he’d been a minor during the sexting episode, would drop the suit due to the public humiliation it would involve — thanks to a situation the shameless Pugh initiated.

Looking back on Pugh’s tumultuous four-year career on the council, one sees the depths of personal hypocrisy and political hubris. His blind ambition sabotaged the very things he hoped to accomplish. His efforts to bring respect and professionalism to Detroit government turned into a three-ring circus that rivaled the bad old days of Monica “Shrek” Conyers and Kay “Seventeen Pounds of Sausage” Everett.

But one thing stands out in particular: Though we had high hopes for Pugh striking a blow against homophobia, he’s done more to set back gay rights than many demagogues could.

Whenever those arguing for equal rights champion fair hiring practices that don’t discriminate against the LGBT community, especially in positions that involve children, such as counselors, educators, or school administrators, they will have Pugh’s misdeeds thrown back in their faces. Detroit never was a gay-rights bastion, but Pugh has given homophobes a potent weapon: an example of somebody who let his sexuality get in the way of professional conduct in dealing with children.

That should be the blackest mark on Pugh’s shady record. In 2007, Pugh had told us: “So many young people never see any normal gay people; they see the extremes because those are the people who are most noticeable. Those are the most obvious among us, but those are the minority. I can think of 10 negative images of gay black men in the media right now.”

For the record, Pugh has enlarged that figure by at least one.




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