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The Courage of His Convictions

Coy Pugh has put hard drugs and hard time behind him, but memories fuel his career as a legislator.



When he was a young man, Coy Pugh got nervous whenever he drove by Cook County Jail, at 26th and California. "I thought passing by would make me end up in jail again," he says. "My days being in and out of jail are over for me, but I still know how it feels. I can see myself in Division II, looking out the window onto 26th Street. I used to wish and pray that I could catch a glimpse of somebody I knew walking by."

Pugh is now a Democratic state legislator, paid $53,581 a year to represent the house's Tenth District, which encompasses largely poor chunks of Humboldt Park, West Garfield Park, Austin, and North Lawndale. The only felon in the General Assembly, he says that his empathy for the imprisoned--and for the welfare mother and the working poor--allows him to provide a much-needed perspective on legislation that concerns those groups.

Some people consider Pugh an opportunist. Others dismiss him because of his shady past. But Pugh, who's now running for his fifth term, embraces his background. He cites the late Jesse "Ma" Houston, who led the prison-outreach program at Operation PUSH: "Ma Houston had a saying, that if you knock on any door in the black community you'll find somebody who has been involved in the criminal justice system--a friend, a relative, some intimate. So having a rap sheet is not seen as shameful. It doesn't make you a degenerate. It shows there is still hope. I represent that second chance."

Pugh certainly looked like he'd taken advantage of his second chance one October morning as he strolled into Cook County Jail and moved through the security checkpoints. Slim and six-foot-three, with a buzz cut and a trim mustache, the 47-year-old Pugh wore a sharp black suit, a blue tie, and a blue shirt. He always dresses well. "The point is to project an image so that people remember who I am," he says. Three-quarters of his wardrobe is imported from Africa: Nehru-style brocade suits with kente-cloth buttons. He often tops things off with a colorful kufi cap.

Families waiting to visit their incarcerated relatives greeted Pugh warmly, and guards patted him on the shoulder. His destination was the office of the PACE Institute, the jail school that's now part of the Safer Foundation. "You da man," the institute's program director, Ben Greer, told Pugh as he approached. Pugh cocked his head toward a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. "No, he da man."

Waiting for him in a large meeting room were 60 young male inmates wearing dun uniforms with D.O.C. stenciled across the back. Inspirational speakers have come to the PACE Institute for years--mayors, governors, McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. But few of the speakers have ever been alumni.

"I purposely have on a tailor-made suit so you can see my success," Pugh began. "Righteous living can bring you all the things you can imagine. It's all right there for you. For you to understand that, I want to give you a picture of who I am."

He said he'd been an unruly child growing up in North Lawndale, "where if you didn't have a scar on your face you weren't considered tough." He became a gang leader and soon landed in jail. "The first time I put my age up so I could come here. That was a certain badge of honor, because then you were somebody. In the end I spent almost more time in jail than I did on the street. But then I had an ego bigger than Route 66, and I thought I was all that plus a bag of chips. I'd get out of jail, and they'd give me a box of blow, a bottle of [prescription cough] syrup, and I'd be back stuck on stupid. It took me until I was 32 years old before I figured out that I needed help."

Pugh shared some stories from his days behind bars. "Once this guy who had killed a member of my gang was brought into my cell, and I offered him protection," he said. "The guy was overcome with fear, and he grabbed a mop wringer and split my hand wide open." He said salvation came when he turned to religion. "On the tier one day I dropped my flag [gang affiliation], gave up my box [control of a communal money pot], and went to church to find the word of God."

Pugh took off his suit jacket. "I ain't here because I have nothing else to do. I'm not bored. When I was sitting in the same seats you're in--when I used to come to this very institute--the speakers would plead with us to change our lifestyles. It's some gimmick, I thought. But that's how screwed up my thinking was. You have to give up what you know. Your thought process is cracked and wrong, and if you keep it up you're damned to destruction."

He leaned on the podium, holding up a slim Bible. "You have to control your life. You're the one who's responsible. If you say you were a victim of police abuse, well, maybe you were--but you put yourself in that position. If you were with somebody who got busted, and you got busted too--well, you were with that person." Winding up, he said, "God has pulled you out of muck and mire and put you in a place where you can change, where you can become the head and not the tail. I leave you with that, my brothers."

A few of the young prisoners asked questions. In answering one of them Pugh cautioned that more and more inmates show signs of mental illness and are dangerous if they don't get their medication. "I remember a cell mate I once had, a murderer, and when he didn't get his Thorazine I refused to reenter the cell." He ended with this admonition: "'Know ye the truth, and the truth will set you free.' I don't want to keep you from lunch--it looks really healthy."

The young prisoners applauded hard, then several approached with questions or pleas for help. "Call my office," Pugh told five or six of them, handing them his card.

Pugh, who grew up on West 21st Place in North Lawndale, became a gang member in 1964, when he was 11 years old. "We had a baseball team," he says. "It was just a group of guys hanging together. They started calling us a gang, and we started behaving like one--stealing, skipping school. I was the gang leader not by choice but by default. I was the one who made things happen." He was awarded the moniker of Popcorn because he was adept at "poppin' corn," slang for talking a lot. The gang was first called the Cermak Deuces, then the Soul Brothers, and later just the Souls. In time it grew to 500 members and affiliated with the larger Disciples.

Pugh's father, an auto mechanic who owned a gas station, and his mother, a tavern owner turned foster-care provider, separated before Pugh, the oldest of seven children, turned ten. He only occasionally saw his father after that. "My dad was a good father, but he had a drinking problem which exposed his weaknesses," he says. "I never did understand why he left. He never told me why. It left a void."

In 1966 Vincent Giese, a priest at Blessed Sacrament, took Pugh and other boys in the neighborhood under his wing, setting up a program that offered peer tutoring and academic counseling and that sponsored a basketball league. He called them the Black Christian Students, and he didn't care if they weren't Catholic--the Pughs were Baptist.

When Pugh dropped out of Farragut High School as a freshman, Giese managed to get him into Saint Mel's. But Pugh dropped out again three months later. "Saint Mel's was too tame for Coy," says Giese, who's now retired. "I saw him as this extraordinary leader, but he was searching."

Pugh was first arrested when he was 16, and by the time he was 17 he was using heroin regularly--it would be years before he would break his addiction. He'd moved out of his mother's house, living first with a sister and then a girlfriend. His mother didn't seem to see or didn't want to see what was happening to him. She says she never pried into the affairs of her children, including Coy's. "I just knew a lot of boys respected him," she says. "I thought he was with Father Giese and that Father was taking him the right way."

Giese kept his faith in Pugh, but the other boys in the program didn't. "Coy was on another page from the rest of us--into thieving, gambling, prostitution, and narcotics--the whole nine yards," says Art Turner, who became a state's attorney investigator and then a state representative. "I said to Father, 'Coy's bullshitting you. Even though he tries to change, it's not going to work out that way.' I reminded myself to stay as far away from Coy Pugh as possible."

By the early 70s Pugh's gang was breaking into homes and dealing drugs. "Marijuana initially and then pills, uppers and downers," he says. "By '75 we were into hard drugs." In 1974 he began serving 18 months at the federal correctional institution in Milan, Michigan, having been convicted of both a federal charge (making a false statement when he applied for a post office job) and state charges (unlawful use of a weapon and drug possession). But he did earn his GED while in prison.

In 1978 a gang acquaintance shot Pugh while trying to rob him. One bullet lodged two inches from his heart, and a second went through his elbow. It didn't change the way Pugh thought. "I lived by the creed--live fast, die young, and have a pretty corpse."

In 1981 he was sentenced to three years in prison for being in possession of a rental car authorities said had been leased on a stolen credit card. "A friend of mine rented the car on the bogus card and gave it to me," he says. "It was due back, but I never took it back." He served 18 months.

By 1983, when Pugh turned 31, he'd been arrested 32 times by the Chicago police, according to a rap sheet in his court files. He'd been picked up for theft, retail theft, disorderly conduct, aggravated battery, attempted robbery, burglary, grand theft auto, unlawful use of a weapon, possession of a controlled substance, and pandering. In some cases the charges against him had been dismissed; in other cases he was given suspended sentences or got off with time served in jail. Five times he drew probation. Three times he landed in prison.

Each time Pugh ended up in jail he would go through two or three days of withdrawal symptoms--vomiting and diarrhea. Then he'd settle into the jail routine, which was mostly humdrum, only occasionally violent.

He insists he would try to go straight when he got out: "I would have these periods when I'd break away from the street, when I'd take some classes or have jobs." He notes that he once held jobs at a steak house and a car wash. "But the street always pulled me back." He says his drug addiction was what drove him to crime. "I did more drug use than drug dealing," he says, "and I did things to support the habit." That's a typical pattern. A U.S. Justice Department study released in 1999 found that half of state inmates report they committed the crimes for which they were imprisoned under the influence of drugs or alcohol; three-quarters had "some type of involvement with alcohol or drug use leading up to their involvement in their current offense." According to Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Nic Howell, around 30 percent of Illinois prisoners are now confined for possession or sale of drugs, up from 5 percent in 1985, though those figures don't include other crimes committed to pay for drugs.

In 1983 Pugh was living in the basement apartment of a building his mother owned on North Francisco; she lived upstairs. On May 26 police raided his apartment. He raced out the back and was caught on the second floor. In his apartment police found heroin, Doriden (a barbiturate substitute), and codeine--drugs valued at $87,000.

Facing a maximum penalty of seven years for possession of drugs, Pugh sought help from Treatment Alternative for Safe Communities, an agency that assists correctional institutions in dealing with inmates who are dependent on drugs and alcohol. He recalls that a counselor told him, "You're incorrigible, unrehabilitatable--and you'll spend the rest of your life in prison."

He couldn't say anything in response. "At that point I realized that all I knew how to do--all my behaviors--had led me to prison," he says. "The truth came on like a light, and I began looking around at my environment critically." He remembers that he suddenly began listening carefully to another inmate, a native of Jamaica who would sit in the back of Pugh's tier at the jail reading the Psalms in his thick patois. Pugh began reading the Bible, and the Jamaican helped him interpret the harder passages. "The fact that there was a God who cares and who's always open to us all," Pugh says, "turned me around."

He began showing up at the PACE Institute's Bible classes. Frank Bonnike, a former priest who was then the institute's president, says, "If career criminals don't turn around in their early 30s, they probably won't. They spend the rest of their years in the joint." He remembers meeting Pugh, who was by then vowing to return to the west side to help the less fortunate. "Coy was determined not to go back to jail," Bonnike says. "But then lots of guys are. What made him unique was his focus on others."

In court Pugh pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, and the judge gave him a sentence of time served, nine months. In February 1984 he was transferred to the release center at Joliet Correctional Center and took the bus back to Chicago.

For a year or so after getting out of jail, Pugh lived with the Jesus People, the evangelical ministry in Uptown. He shared their communal meals, studied the Bible, and helped clean out an old building slated for rehabilitation. "I had an awareness of purpose," he says. "It was like blinders had been lifted off my eyes, and I was not a victim of my environment anymore."

Then Pugh returned to the west side. On his own, he started cold calling companies in the suburbs, asking for jobs for ex-offenders, which soon brought him a contract with a temporary-services firm. "I would tell about black men getting out of prison with x's on their backs that prevented them from working and supporting their families," he says. "I had a lot of success." Then he helped Deloris Sims run a food-distribution program. U.S. congressman Danny Davis remembers meeting Pugh when he worked for Sims and was impressed that Pugh was "willing to work the back room," schlepping boxes of peanut butter off trucks into Sims's basement.

Late in 1984, shortly after attorney Anthony Young was elected to the General Assembly from the Tenth District, Pugh walked into Young's office. "I made Tony an offer he couldn't refuse," he says. He told Young about his criminal past, then volunteered to work for him for free for 30 days. If I work out, he told Young, keep me on for another month for car fare and lunch money. If I work out again, he said, hire me. Young did, and Pugh became his administrative aide.

Young liked the way Pugh handled the concerns of constituents. "Coy had the ability to relate to the welfare mother or the person whose son was in prison--who walked in off the street and had no education at all," he says. "And then he could turn around and deal with a bureaucrat in Springfield. He could communicate regardless of who you were."

After two years with Young, Pugh left to take a job as executive director of a small-business development center. A couple of years later he set up a business of his own on the side--a construction company employing ex-offenders and the homeless to fix up abandoned housing for Pyramidwest Development Corporation, the builder responsible for much of the current revitalization of North Lawndale. At its peak, the construction company was grossing $100,000 a year, netting him a salary of $40,000. He also opened a bookstore that carried African-American literature.

Meanwhile he started taking courses at Northeastern Illinois University, where he developed a passion for Malcolm X. "We'd lived an identical lifestyle, and I drew strength from his conversion," he says. He started dressing like the Black Muslim leader, favoring black bow ties, white shirts, and simple black-framed glasses and spouting a black nationalist ideology. But he never seriously thought of becoming a Muslim. He'd joined Fernwood United Methodist Church in Roseland, where Deloris Sims was a member, and would eventually become an assistant pastor to the church's Reverend Al Sampson.

In 1990 Chicago United, a consortium of the city's major corporations, decided to help rejuvenate two fading neighborhoods, Austin and Pilsen, in partnership with South Shore Bank. The project was called Austin United, and its model was Boston's Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which had turned a pocket of land threatened with gentrification into a land trust (the initiative has since taken over 450 parcels and constructed 100 houses, a community center, and a park). The bank and Chicago United put up $200,000, and William Sampson, then president of Chicago United, hired Pugh to direct the project. "The assumption was that Austin United would come up with a plan," says Sampson. "Then Chicago United and South Shore Bank would come up with more money, and everyone would go meet with the mayor and the governor to really nail it down."

Pugh tried to pull the various local organizations together, but after many rounds of community meetings Austin United couldn't come up with a plan. "I can remember running to eight to ten meetings a week," says Mary Volpe, executive director of the Northeast Austin Organization. "But every time we got together people were working on their own agenda." Leola Spann, president of the Northwest Austin Council, remembers an effort to launch a literacy program that died because there wasn't even money to fund a resource directory.

Sampson says it was also difficult to get the corporate leaders who sat on the Chicago United board to focus on Austin: "Most of them didn't even know Austin existed." He gave them a bus tour, but the jobs and additional funding he thought they would offer never materialized. He says another problem was the general perception of Pugh. "You had a lot of residents, block-club women, who didn't think Coy could be trusted. They just didn't think he had their interests at heart. He was seen as doing things to promote Coy." Sampson says Pugh reminded him of former gang leader and activist Wallace "Gator" Bradley. "To me he was a quieter version of Gator. I found Coy to be smart, but he is a hustler. I grew up a poor kid, and I can spot one a mile away."

Pugh remembers things differently. "Sampson carried the agenda of the corporate institutions that made up Chicago United but not of the black community." He thinks the problem was that South Shore Bank was lukewarm about Austin United's vision. Milton Davis, South Shore's cofounder and later its president, says he doesn't remember what went wrong. Told that Sampson called him a hustler, Pugh says sharply, "What does that make Sampson, a corporate spokesman?"

A couple of years after the project began, the money was gone, most of it to salaries and office expenses.

In late 1991 Anthony Young gave up his seat in the legislature and ran for circuit court judge. No law prevents an ex-felon from serving in state office in Illinois, though if you're convicted of a felony while in office you have to resign. Pugh offered to fill out the last year of Young's term, and the Democratic ward committeemen in the district appointed him to the office--though Ed Smith, the 28th Ward alderman and committeeman, later told Pugh that if he'd known about his criminal background he would have balked.

The next spring Pugh ran for the seat with the support of Young. "Before Coy Pugh's candidacy even came up I'd speak on my own at schools," says Young, now a divorce-court judge. "My message to young people who might be involved in gangs was that if you want to change your life you can. I had my concerns about Coy running. I knew his record would be an issue. But to me Coy was an example of somebody who had changed his life."

In the Democratic primary, 37th Ward alderman Percy Giles and Water Reclamation District president Thomas Fuller supported James Blassingame, a political operative who'd directed Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in Indiana. "Many people in our community knew Blassingame," says Danny Davis. "He was friendly and articulate, a desirable fellow with a lot of energy. But to me Coy was more substantive, notwithstanding his record." Pugh ended up with Davis's backing as well as that of Ed Smith.

Both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times editorialized against Pugh. The Tribune noted that his record "hardly inspires confidence," then endorsed a third candidate in the race, Gertrude Washington, a consultant and local school council member. The Sun-Times backed Washington too. The Austin Voice ran an article listing the crimes on Pugh's record, and Blassingame's workers plastered poster-size copies of it on lamp posts. "It was heart wrenching for me to see my whole life up there," says Pugh. "It was like getting hit in the gut with a sledgehammer."

Nevertheless, Pugh won by 250 votes. Blassingame would eventually go to prison as a bagman in the Silver Shovel bribery scandal. The scandal also implicated Fuller, who was convicted of taking bribes along with Blassingame in 1998, and Giles, who was convicted last November. In the November 1992 election Pugh rolled over his Republican opponent. He'd been out of prison only eight years.

Pugh believes that African-Americans, his power base, are still at a serious disadvantage in a world dominated by powerful whites. "We've been out of slavery for 130 years, and we've made some gains, most of them courtesy of the civil rights movement," he says. "But we still aren't recognized as full human beings by the people in control. We aren't accepted into the larger society yet unless we double-dot our i's and t's."

He rails against "post-traumatic slavery disorder," which he defines as tension and anxiety bred in blacks, especially in young men, by discrimination. "When the police drive up behind you, a white man, you feel protected, but black men are immediately suspect," he says. "When you shop in stores you are free to roam the aisles, but we are watched carefully or ignored. I was at the Flat Top [Grill] one night. I'd been sitting at the bar waiting to be served, and a white couple sat down next to me. The waitress working the bar went right to the white couple. How would you feel if you'd been me?"

Pugh says that young black men turn to crime just as he did because they have few recreational opportunities, crummy parks, lousy schools, and few job possibilities. They also have to contend with police harassment, corporate racism (he says African-American women land the good jobs open to blacks), and disparaging media portrayals ("The black man is either disrespected, ostracized, or killed on camera").

He thinks that politicians have stiffened penalties for crime in recent years without realizing the consequences. "The impression now is that being tough on crime will get you reelected, that that's what the public wants. 'Tough on crime' translates into worse penalties, but that's being not smart on crime." Prisons don't rehabilitate inmates, he says, and inmates are returned to ghettos where they fall back into their old ways, commit crimes, are rearrested, and end up back in jail. "Society is paying for its neglect," he says. He frequently cites a 1995 figure from the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy group, showing that one-third of African-American men in their 20s are either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. "A large percentage of the young men I encounter on a daily basis are in that category."

Pugh would prefer to see first-time drug offenders given lesser penalties and assigned to a treatment unit instead of a general-population prison. He thinks the state law requiring the most serious felons to complete at least 85 percent of their sentences before being released (murderers must do 100 percent) "takes away the incentive for rehabilitation." He sees himself as proof that the 1994 three-strikes law that puts Illinoisans convicted of three felonies in the penitentiary for life without possibility of parole is too harsh--it would have locked Pugh away for life.

When Pugh arrived in Springfield in 1993 he was assigned to the house's Criminal Justice Committee. He immediately took up the cause of the "C-number" inmates, who were sentenced to the penitentiary before February 1, 1978, when mandatory sentences with no parole went into effect. The C-number inmates--their prison ID numbers begin with C--were given long sentences but were eligible for parole after a set period and could be released if they demonstrated good behavior. Every year these prisoners had gone before the state Prisoner Review Board to see whether they deserved parole, yet few had been released. "You don't want to get locked in on that issue," Art Turner, by then a state representative, says he told Pugh. "They'll throw it against you that you're an ex-con."

Undeterred, Pugh introduced bills requiring the Department of Corrections to convert the C-number sentences, which were often longer than mandatory sentences would have been, to a set time, allowing more inmates to be released. Another bill would have released C-number inmates on electronic monitors as insurance against recidivism, and yet another bill would have forced the Prisoner Review Board to allow parole if the majority of a panel of three board members voted for it. That had been the practice for years, but it had been changed by the early 90s so that the decision had to be made by a majority of the entire 12-member board. The review board and its supporters opposed Pugh's bills, which cleared his committee, then died. There are now 465 C-number prisoners in Illinois; only 19 have been released in the past two years. Review board chairman Anne Taylor, once a correctional jobs administrator for two downstate counties, opposes any change in how they're dealt with, saying, "You should look at each case individually."

In his first elected term Pugh nearly wound up in jail again. In September 1993 he was accused of grabbing a police sergeant around the neck and forcing him to his knees during a Loop protest over the Chicago Board of Education budget. Pugh claims that the sergeant pushed him and they "just got tangled up." A jury found him guilty of misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct, and the judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail and 18 months' probation, then suspended the jail time. (Pugh kept his legislative seat because the crime wasn't a felony.)

That same year the National Enquirer profiled Pugh under the headline "Drug-dealing thug gets elected to the legislature--& he's doing a good job!" The article stated, "The people in Chicago's 10th District felt that his life of crime was perfect training for a life in politics." Early in 1994, just before the primary, a glowing profile appeared in Ebony.

Pugh ran unopposed in that primary, which made him a shoo-in in the general election. He would win the '96 and '98 Democratic primaries by comfortable margins, contests in which less than 10,000 ballots were cast. Asked why Pugh so quickly gained a loyal following, Brad Cummings, associate editor of the Austin Voice, says, "He reminds people of Malcolm X, and he pushes an old-time liberal agenda." Pugh describes his appeal differently: "People from the community see me in the grocery store, shopping for fruits and vegetables, and they know I'm taking up issues nobody else wants to address."

In his second term Pugh was assigned to the house's Health Care and Human Services committee, where he would serve as chairman from 1994 to 1997. He found himself in the middle of controversy as the state moved to implement welfare reform as mandated by Washington. "I've always been apprehensive about welfare reform, about putting people with a history of dependence into the world of work where there are no jobs for them," he says. "But the Department of Human Services was under strict guidelines, and if we didn't go along we'd lose federal dollars."

Pugh sponsored a bill that would have trained people leaving welfare to do work in high-paying jobs in electronics, plastic molding, and computer technology, but the bill died. He then proposed a bill authorizing a $2 million pilot project that would offer skills training; the bill passed in 1998, but Robert Wordlaw, executive director of the Chicago Jobs Council, says, "Two million dollars is not even a drop in the bucket." Pugh also sponsored a bill that gave Habilitative Systems, a west-side community agency, a two-year state grant to help youths earn their GEDs and to offer them leadership classes, beginning in 1997.

At the end of the 1997 legislative session north-side legislators were struggling to help 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, who'd been convicted of armed robbery as a young man and was now about to be denied a second term as alderman because of a 1993 state law making someone with a felony conviction ineligible for municipal office if an opponent petitioned election officials to end his candidacy. Governor Jim Edgar had refused to pardon Burnett, so Senator John Cullerton had put forward a bill that would allow Burnett to run again for alderman but not for higher office. Then to placate Senator Walter Dudycz, a conservative Republican who's also a police detective, Cullerton broadened his bill to include state officials; state officeholders who'd been convicted of a felony would be grandfathered in, but they wouldn't be allowed to run for higher office. Judy Erwin sponsored the bill in the house, and in the middle of a Democratic caucus, Pugh rose and accused her of trying to destroy him politically, then of being a racist. "I was upset for days," says Erwin. She later told Pugh she hadn't been thinking of him, that she'd only wanted to help Burnett, an alderman in her district. The bill was never called for a vote, and Pugh accepted Erwin's apology. The following year Edgar granted Burnett executive clemency, and in December 1999 circuit court judge Aaron Jaffe ruled the 1993 state law unconstitutional.

In 1997 the Illinois Moratorium Project was organized to halt executions in the state, because so many people on death row had been exonerated (the total is now 13). When the project went looking for a legislator to forward its cause in the General Assembly, Pugh was the obvious choice. "Thank God Coy had the courage to step forward," says Bill Ryan, head of the project. There wasn't much support for a moratorium when Pugh first proposed it three years ago, but the idea gathered steam when Anthony Porter was released from death row last March. On April 27 the house, on a 70 to 40 vote, passed a Pugh-sponsored resolution that called for a six-month moratorium while a task force studied the problem. On November 29 Pugh and other project leaders called for an 18-month moratorium.

Pugh frequently takes up unpopular causes. He and his staff regularly follow up on charges of police brutality and try to expedite the return of children taken away from mothers by the Department of Children and Family Services. He thinks the agency too often intervenes in families because of media pressure. "DCFS operates from a point of fear," he says. "Most black women, if given the chance, are good and caring parents." Every week letters from state inmates arrive at his offices in Austin and North Lawndale asking for help getting medical care, a pass to travel home for a funeral, a transfer to another prison, a new trial. The letters often concern individuals and families who live outside Pugh's district, but his office responds anyway. "Sometimes we can help, but often we can't," says Anthony Gilberry, Pugh's office manager in Austin, who replies to many of the letters. He spent six years in prison for manslaughter and was indicted for murder after the 1978 Pontiac prison riots, though that charge was later dropped. "A lot of times the prisoners just want attention," he says. "They have no mother or father or brother that pays attention to them, and they need somebody to write to. We write back and say, 'Keep the faith. Whatever you believe in, never give up. Always try to better yourself.'"

Some black activists have faulted Pugh for cozying up to Frank Caruso Sr., whose son Frank Jr. was convicted of the racial beating of Lenard Clark in 1997. "Frank senior didn't strike me as a racist," says Pugh. "He struck me as a father whose son had made a mistake." Earlier Pugh took shots from many directions for writing a letter supporting parole for El Rukn leader Larry Hoover after visiting him in prison. "Those years behind bars may well have touched Larry's heart," Pugh still insists, even though Hoover was convicted in 1997 of running a $100 million drug-trafficking operation from inside prison.

But few would deny that Pugh works hard. He's always attending meetings and huddling with constituents, trying to drive himself as hard as his idol, Danny Davis. "If I can be at half the places Danny's at," he says, laughing, "I'm sure to get reelected."

If he's elected to a fifth term, Pugh hopes to do more to redevelop the west side. Among his plans are opening a seven-story bank building on Madison in West Garfield Park as an office tower, turning an old mansion at Adams and Central Park into a tourist center, and reviving the Garfield Park Conservatory. "We want to tap into the $18 billion tourist industry," he says. A couple of years ago he underwrote a video documentary on west-side history to promote tourism.

Pugh got a bachelor's in business administration from Northeastern in 1994. In 1997 he found time to take religion classes at the McCormick Theological Seminary, and last summer he took more classes at the Garrett Theological Seminary. He interned at a white church in Park Forest and in June 1998 began preaching once a month at West Englewood United Methodist Church, at 68th and Damen. "This has put me into another realm of accountability," he says, "where I'm a representative of God and not the state." He's paid $1,000 a month--he plans to return two months' pay to the church each year--and expects to be ordained in March.

On a Sunday morning in November, Pugh, dressed in a white cassock, rose as the choir finished a hymn and stepped to the pulpit in West Englewood United Methodist's modest chapel. The 50 worshipers perked up. As his text, Pugh took the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins from the Book of Matthew, then rambled through a series of observations. He talked about housewives surfing the Internet ("Bored women are looking for excitement that leads to adultery and divorce"), the death of Walter Payton ("'I'm scared,' Walter said; he didn't know that Jesus had taken the sting out of death"), and sex ("Safe sex ought to be saved for the long-lasting, productive joy of marriage").

Pugh's delivery was slow and measured, and he rarely raised his voice. "Coy's got to learn how to whoop," says Danny Davis. But the members of the congregation didn't seem to care. "To me he's a fantastic preacher," says Sylvester Stafford, the church historian, "because he has a moral message."

"God is calling for you, you, and you," said Pugh. "He's calling for me too. He's waiting for us at the altar with his arms stretched wide open. He'll set your spirit free, he'll free you from sin, and he'll give you a brand new life."

In Pugh's new life he prays three times daily. This year all state legislators received laptops, and Pugh E-mails them inspirational messages every day while they're in session. "My colleagues appreciate the messages," he says. "Some respond with an amen or a hallelujah. Some see me walking the aisle and say, 'Thanks for doing that.'" Yet others apparently roll their eyes and hit the delete key.

Pugh says he now swears only when another driver cuts him off in traffic. A vegetarian, he considers caffeine a drug, and he neither drinks coffee nor smokes. Each day he downs eight glasses of water and has only one big meal, usually a lunchtime helping of fruits and vegetables, often ordered at the Soul Vegetarian East restaurant on 75th Street. At political receptions he cleans out the broccoli, which he says no one ever wants anyway. Sometimes he'll fast for weeks, drinking only water and a mixture of maple syrup and cayenne pepper. "It brings me to a level of discipline," he says. "Am I hungry? People in Africa are hungry. Americans just want to eat." "Coy's always eating sticks," says his friend Paul Williams, a lawyer lobbyist. "He's not really much of a lunch date." Pugh rarely agrees to lunch dates with lobbyists, preferring to see them in his office. "They do you a favor, and you have to do them one," he explains. "I'd rather not be compromised."

Every day Pugh does some sort of exercise, whether it's jogging, yoga, or lifting weights, and early on Sunday mornings he can often be found running in Grant Park. As further discipline he says he meditates and sometimes practices celibacy. "That's something I picked up in prison," he says, then laughs.

Pugh is devoted to his mother--his father died in 1986--and says he's close to his two daughters, from two early relationships, and his two grandchildren. He maintains that he's become a more responsible father and husband. "You know better, and you do better," he says. He and his second wife, Addie, a health practitioner, live in Austin with their 18-month-old son.

"Coy is a brilliant young man who's had a unique pilgrimage," says Al Sampson, the minister at Fernwood. "He has a PhD in urbanology from walking up and down the streets of black America. Our church and other churches see him as a blessing, because a lost sheep has gotten saved."

Asked if he's noticed any backsliding since he's been out of jail, Pugh says, "The backsliding might consist of smoking a cigarette or eating some fried foods. When some politicians went on a riverboat I was not strong enough not to gamble--I would lay a bet. I've entertained the thought of drugs, but the thought is repugnant to the extent that it serves no constructive purpose. People use drugs to escape reality, and today I love reality so much."

"I believe in redemption," says Danny Davis. "My understanding of Christianity suggests that man can fall and rise, man can turn from being wrong and become right. I don't support what Coy did in his past, but it has wrought a deep level of understanding in him. I imagine Coy thanks God every day for having turned himself around. Personally, I think he represents me better than any state representative that I know."

When Pugh draws notice in the press it's usually on the editorial page. "It's bad enough that Rep. Coy has an extensive criminal record--but he's also an automatic vote against any bill that might improve law enforcement," said a Tribune editorial that endorsed his opponent in the 1996 Democratic primary. "That's a travesty, especially considering that Pugh represents a district where crime is a crisis." But the Sun-Times has turned into a grudging supporter. An editorial endorsing him in 1998 stated, "Rep. Coy strongly commended for being the lawmaker who took the least freebie food and entertainment from lobbyists ($29)."

In its latest assessment of state legislators, the ACLU gave Pugh a 90 percent favorable rating. But the National Taxpayers United of Illinois gave him only a 19 percent favorable rating and labeled him a "taxpayer enemy" for his votes in favor of levy increases in 1997 and 1998. "He's the third-lowest from the bottom," says the organization's president, James Tobin. "He'd be a zero, except for the fact that he voted for four tax cuts."

On the house floor and in the cloakrooms, Pugh is generally treated courteously. "Coy doesn't hide the fact of his record, and a lot of times when he's speaking on the floor he's making references to his own self," says Lovana Jones, a near-south-side representative and close Pugh ally. "When he himself admits where he comes from, no one has reason to throw it up at him."

"He's viewed as somebody who is serious and thoughtful, even though I have to say we differ on a number of issues," says Democratic representative Thomas Dart, chairman of the Prison Management Reform Committee and author of lots of anticrime legislation, notably the 1997 Safe Neighborhoods Act and a law that advertises the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders. Dart isn't bothered by Pugh's record. "I deal with him every day. He isn't someone I think of in those terms."

Pugh had reservations about the Safe Neighborhoods Act, especially the tough provisions for juvenile offenders. "But Dart told me I'd be named to a juvenile-justice commission that the act set up, and I voted for the bill," he says. "I was never appointed. I was hoodwinked." Nevertheless, he voted to reinstitute the act in December, despite the controversial section that would shift unlawful use of a weapon from a misdemeanor to a felony. Pugh says he likes Dart, but he thinks Dart's currying favor with the tough-on-crime crowd to win higher office.

Among Pugh's critics is Walter Dudycz. "To be fair to Coy Pugh," says Dudycz, "he has been elected to the statehouse by his constituents. It's their decision to retain this man. I'm not going to discuss his individual record, but if a mature man or woman commits a crime they should face the consequences. There are certain role models that we look up to. Now somebody like Walter Payton--such an exemplary man in the sports world and in his personal life--there's a role model. We have people out there--religious leaders, CAPS volunteers--they are role models to our children, not convicted felons. You do the crime and you do the time, and unfortunately it stains your life forever. There are consequences to crime."

"Walter Dudycz is a legislator," Pugh responds, "but God is my witness. I've come full circle. I've paid my debt and committed myself to a higher calling. Everyone has a point in their life when their image of themselves is not what they want it to be and they seek something deeper. I've done that, and I have come past it. I am righteous in the eyes of God. The person that I am today is made of the Lord. The person that I was--who spent all that time in jail and prison--was made of the devil."

Pugh has a more worrisome critic closer to home--Alderman Ed Smith has become an intractable foe. "After I won in '92," says Pugh, "Ed and I had plans to lease office space together, but the developer never got the office ready." He says Smith blamed him. He also says Smith was irritated that Pugh didn't give him any credit for his success when he was interviewed by Ebony. The rift between them widened in 1997 after Pugh balked at voting for a tax compromise Smith wanted that raised money for the schools through a patchwork of cigarette, casino, and phone tax hikes instead of a state income-tax boost. "We were settling for half a loaf," Pugh insists. Asked why he stopped backing Pugh, Smith says vaguely that Pugh sold out on some education issues and on casino gambling--Pugh backed a compromise that resulted in a franchise for suburban Rosemont. Then he refuses to say anything else.

Smith ran someone against Pugh in the 1996 and 1998 primaries. This time Pugh has three opponents, and he says all three are stalking-horses for Smith. Smith won't comment.

Two of Pugh's opponents are named Collins. "The name Collins has been synonymous with this area since it's been black dominated," says Danny Davis, pointing to Congressman George Collins, his wife and successor, Cardiss Collins, and Earlean Collins, a state senator. But they aren't related to the Collinses in the Tenth District race. Annazette Collins, a public service administrator for DCFS, says Smith is backing her. "A lot of people don't feel [Pugh] has done an adequate job," she says. Asked what she thinks, she says, "I don't know." She does add that she doesn't hold Pugh's criminal background against him. The second candidate, Denise Collins, didn't respond to a message left on her door; the third, Dorothy Pugh (no relation to Coy), wasn't at the address given out by the Board of Elections, and no one in the building seemed to know who she was.

Pugh would like to run for higher office at some point. Nothing in federal law prevents a felon from running for Congress, and Pugh says he might one day run, possibly for Davis's seat after he retires. Pugh would also like to serve as an ambassador, preferably in Africa, where he's traveled several times, most recently on a trade mission to Ghana. The U.S. Senate would have to approve such a posting, but Pugh doesn't think senators would hold his past against him. "So far," he says, "I haven't had a problem getting to where I'm at."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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