After all her disparaging remarks about it in recent days, it was pretty clear what Mayor Catherine Pugh was going to do with the bill to raise Baltimore’s minimum wage to $15:
The only question was how would she frame the decision, considering her clear campaign promise a year ago to sign the bill.
It was the first question she was asked during today’s brief news conference to announce her planned veto.
At the time she made the campaign pledge, Pugh said to a group of reporters, “I wasn’t aware I was going to have to come up with the money to fix up our school system. Nor was I aware of the fact that I would walk in the door and I’ve got a DOJ federal contract that I have to deal with that’s on my desk, a consent decree. We don’t know at this point what that cost is going to be.”
But what about her statements in interviews and written answers in candidate questionnaires unequivocally promising to sign a $15 minimum wage bill?
“I don’t think they would make me swear on a Bible. They asked me: ‘Do I support?’ And I absolutely do support. But when you ask me as the chief executive officer of this city what I will do as it relates to the conditions of this city currently and where we are economically, I have a right and a responsibility to respond on behalf of all the citizens of this city.”
Pugh said she was persuaded, after talking with assorted community and business stakeholders as well as neighboring county executives, that raising the minimum wage to $15 in Baltimore would drive businesses out of the city, taking away jobs for the unskilled.
She said she decided the city should not get ahead of the state, which is raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2018.
“It’s important we follow the lead of the state,” she said. “We don’t want to be the hole in the doughnut.”
Praise and Scorn
Her decision brought quick condemnation from the Fight for $15 Baltimore Coalition, which pushed a version of the bill last summer as far as the full City Council, where the measure failed.
“We are deeply upset that Mayor Pugh has broken her campaign pledge by vetoing this legislation, which promises to give tens of thousands of workers higher wages and the opportunity to lead self-sufficient lives,” said coalition chair Ricarra Jones.
“As a state senator, Mayor Pugh was a strong supporter of a livable minimum wage and explicitly promised to sign the Baltimore wage bill as mayor. Today, she has made clear that promises are made to be broken. The voters will remember her turn-around.”
The Greater Baltimore Committee, one of the most visible institutional opponents of the bill, was equally quick to applaud the mayor.
“The decision was no doubt a difficult one for the mayor. But this shows real leadership as she stayed true to the priority that Baltimore must remain competitive for growth and jobs,” GBC president and CEO Donald C. Fry said in a media release.
From some quarters, Pugh’s decision brought blistering scorn.
“An act of treason against the poor, the working poor, the underemployed, returning citizens, and single parents” was how Rev. Cortly CD Witherspoon Sr., president of the city chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, described the mayor’s decision.
“I think it’s very clear that she abandoned the interest of her constituents in exchange for the interest of her financiers – big business,” Witherspoon said, in a media statement.
“The mayor’s veto is equivalent to a vote in favor of utility shut-offs, evictions, homelessness, and hungry children.”
Others quickly predicted there would be a political price for Pugh to pay.
“Mayor Pugh killed any reelection hopes she had if she had them,” said law student Duane Bond Jr. on Facebook within minutes of the announcement.
“#Fightfor15 was easily a Top 3 campaign issue and she just turned her backs on everyone that voted for her.”
Union Supporters in Shock
Pugh’s reversal brought deep disappointment, perhaps most strikingly from one of her staunchest defenders during the campaign.
Mark McLaurin, a political director at SEIU, the union at the center of the “Fight for 15” effort.
“No one has been a more ferocious and determined defender of Catherine Pugh than me. Until the end, I never believed she would actually do what she did today,” McLaurin wrote on the Baltimore Voters Facebook page.
“It’s particularly painful because I considered her to also be my friend and I still believe that she loves Baltimore every bit as much as I do. But she is getting really poor advice,” McLaurin wrote.
“This is an awful and sad day for low wage workers across this city,” he continued. “My members knocked on doors, made calls and covered polls for her from every corner of this city and they did so in no small part because they believed in me.”
Attention now turns to the City Council, which could block the mayor’s veto with 12 votes.
Monday’s 11-3 Council passage had suggested an override might be possible, given that Councilman Brandon Scott, who missed the vote because of an out-of-town trip, was considered a supporter.
But even before Pugh summoned the media to City Hall for the Friday afternoon news drop, a vote to override was looking unlikely.
Earlier in the day, the Baltimore Jewish Times broke the story, with on-the-record quotes, that Councilman Ed Reisinger had decided to switch sides and would not vote to override Pugh’s veto.