One more stumble for Gary

Times Staff Writer

As the nation impatiently waited Tuesday for primary results from Indiana’s Lake County -- and the city of Gary in particular -- Hoosiers had a sinking feeling.

Once again, Gary was going to be the butt of a joke.

Brian Howey, a syndicated political columnist in Indianapolis, watched the news broadcasts until 3 a.m. with a growing sense of dread.

Cynthia Solomon, a retired accountant from Fort Wayne, buried her head in her pillow and groaned.


Robin Winston, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, screamed at the TV in a bar where he was watching the results -- “Get off our backs!”

“There were an overwhelming number of ballots and a record number of voters turning out,” Winston said. “But of course, any time something goes wrong there, people automatically assume it’s a nefarious cover-up.”

Beaten down, boarded up, and infamous for its crime rates and polluting industrial landscape, good news in Gary can be hard to find.

The predominantly black city of nearly 100,000, located about 30 miles southeast of Chicago, is where a federal jury convicted a city councilman three years ago of fraud and money laundering. Its current mayor, Rudy Clay, survived an apparent shotgun assassination attempt in the mid-1980s, soon after being elected a Lake County commissioner.

Gary civic leaders -- recently touting new construction projects -- cheered when Hooters Air began flying into Gary/Chicago International Airport in 2004 in a bid to draw passengers with cheap fares and busty flight attendants. (The enterprise was short-lived: The airline ceased operation in 2006.)

“It’s the state’s red-headed stepchild,” said James McDowell, a professor of political science at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.


So, in some ways, is Lake County. The state’s second-largest county stretches along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Indiana residents outside the county often say it has more in common with Chicago -- and its notorious political past -- than with the rest of the state.

Rolland Beckham, a retired union official who worked with contractors and building tradesmen in Indiana, recalled how political operatives in the 1960s would drive people to different polling stations to vote multiple times.

“It happened in Gary, in East Chicago,” said Beckham, a friend of Clay’s. “They’d give them a couple dollars and say, ‘Here, your name is this. At the next stop, your name will be this.’ ”

But in recent years, there’s been an aggressive effort to weed out political corruption and clean up elections here and across the state.

Joseph Van Bokkelen, a former U.S. attorney for northwest Indiana who became a federal judge last summer, spent years spearheading high-profile prosecutions, including the former head of the state Democratic Party, the son of an East Chicago, Ind., mayor and Gary City Hall officials.

Last year, a federally mandated statewide purge of the voter rolls resulted in the number of registered Lake County voters being cut by about a third.

And last month, the Supreme Court upheld the state’s voter identification law, requiring people to show ID when they cast a ballot.

“That’s why everyone was shocked at the idea of voter wrongdoing happening now, especially with the nation watching,” said Howey, who has covered Indiana politics for more than two decades.

The run-up to the primary was not without controversy.

Clay spent weeks urging residents to vote for Barack Obama and swore his patronage team would turn out “a tidal wave” of support in Gary for the Illinois senator.

When local schools decided to bus high school seniors to the county courthouse to join in the state’s early voting process, some people questioned whether school funds were being used to rally votes for Obama. Clay said that the students weren’t told how to vote and that it was merely “a civics lesson.”

Thomas M. McDermott Jr., the mayor of neighboring Hammond and a supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that after Tuesday’s late results, “every phone call, every media interview is asking the same thing: What went wrong with Gary? What went wrong with Lake County?”

“Frankly, I’m embarrassed,” McDermott said.

Clay was not. He blamed Tuesday’s delay on record voter turnout, which included more than 11,000 early ballots cast in Lake County -- or about triple the number that had to be counted by hand in the 2004 primary.

Besides, Clay said Wednesday, “I’m excited. Barack Obama pulled a large number of votes out of here.”


Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.



In the spotlight

A look at Gary, Ind., an economically depressed, predominantly African American city:

*--* -- Gary Indiana Race White 10% 86% Black 86% 9% *--*


Median household income

Gary: $30,200

Indiana: $47,709


Families below poverty level

Gary: 23%

Indiana: 7%


*--* -- Gary Indiana Occupation Blue collar 28% 31% White collar 48 54 Service/farm 24 15 *--*


Median home value ( Owner-occupied)

Gary: $66,408

Indiana: $119,526


Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Claritas. Graphics reporting by Scott Wilson