Gary, Indiana, has always epitomized some defining aspect of American life. A company town founded in 1906 by United States Steel and named for Elbert Gary, chairman of the board, it became synonymous with the brawny steel industry, its mills a magnet for the foreign-born.
Gary later typified the comfortable but unsophisticated hometown that talented natives with a will to succeed, such as actor Karl Malden and later the family of Michael Jackson, would abandon when they got the chance. Gary was a good place to be from, if not to be going to, a notion composer Meredith Willson captured in his famous song in The Music Man. And in 1967 Gary elected as mayor Richard Hatcher, who with Cleveland’s Carl Stokes launched the wave of black mayors of big cities. Yet the symbolism of black power soon gave way to the symbolism of despair as whites fled to the suburbs, the steel industry declined, and poverty, drugs, and crime beset the city. In seven different years, beginning in 1974, Gary’s murder rate led the nation.
Last week Gary redefined itself once more. Overwhelmingly African-American, the city turned conventional wisdom on its head by electing a white mayor at a time when the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March were supposed to have made racial polarization more pervasive than ever in the United States. Gary’s voters rejected an appeal to race by black challenger Marion Williams to put into office Scott King, a Chicago-born defense attorney with a conservative platform of order and rectitude and an intolerance for bureaucratic incompetence.
There are various theories as to why King won, the most extreme being that black residents were seeking some kind of return to the plantation in the hope that a white master could do things better. But King says black voters were just thinking for themselves. “There is a tendency for journalists and pundits, whites primarily, to define African-Americans as a block,” King says. “That’s being racist. You have as much range of personality and experience and of independent thought among blacks as among any other group. Pride in ethnicity doesn’t translate across the board. Clearly it doesn’t in Gary.”
The third-largest city in Indiana, Gary has a population of 116,000, down from a high of 175,000 in 1970. Most of that decline occurred during Hatcher’s 20 years as mayor, as Gary, like other industrial cities, lost jobs to foreign competition and advanced technologies. USX Corporation, formerly U.S. Steel, employed 25,000 people at its Gary Works in the mid-70s but has jobs for a mere 7,700 today, the bulk of them suburbanites. Other major employers have either closed or relocated.
If industrial decline opened the doors leading out of Gary, racial fear caused the stampede. “After Hatcher came in, the middle- and upper-class whites–doctors, lawyers, dentists–abandoned our city for the suburbs, and soon others left as well,” recalls Mayor Thomas Barnes. Whole neighborhoods flipped from white to black: Horace Mann, where many Jews had lived; Tolleston, which was predominantly Polish; and the east side, home to Greeks and Slavs.
Hatcher says he managed to attract $300 million in federally funded programs to Gary, but these initiatives were insufficient to reverse Gary’s decline. Old allies finally turned against Hatcher, who was viewed as paying more attention to his national reputation than to Gary’s, and in 1987 Barnes, the township assessor, toppled the mayor. But nothing Barnes has accomplished during his administration–a foreign-trade zone around the airport that relaxes customs tariffs, September’s opening of a postal bar-code facility–has reversed the slide.
There remain some prosperous sections of Gary, notably integrated Miller, the neighborhood where both Scott King and Marion Williams reside and whose lakefront attracts well-heeled Chicagoans looking for vacation homes. But as an entity, the city is now 85 percent African-American and poor. A quarter of all Gary families–and 43 percent of the children–survive on incomes below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Twenty-eight percent of the households are headed by women. The unemployment rate is two and a half times the national average. Last year New Orleans edged out Gary for most murders per capita among American cities; but with more than 100 killings so far this year Gary is well ahead of last year’s pace and may regain the title of murder capital. “We live in America,” says Barnes, “and drugs, guns, and violence are part of our culture, especially in African-American communities like ours that have suffered so much dislocation.” Police morale is low, only in part because of a spring scandal that forced the police chief from office after he married his chief deputy. Last month Governor Evan Bayh, responding to a request from Barnes, deployed 50 state troopers to help patrol Gary’s streets.
The city coffers are bare. The present city budget is $42 million, but “I don’t know if it’s ever been balanced,” says Barnes. “To clear things up we always have to make layoffs and have reductions in force.” The buses don’t run on Sunday. Abandoned housing abounds. The streets are potholed, the sidewalks are crumbling, and one swath of the city seems altogether empty of street signs.
The traditional centerpiece of Gary was the stretch of Broadway lying several blocks south of City Hall. Here was the grand Hotel Gary, whose brochure guaranteed a night’s sleep “away from the dust, dirt and grime of Chicago’s Loop.” Here was the Palace Theatre, a 2,800-seat house with one of the largest Wurlitzer organs in the world. Here were Sears, Goldblatt’s, and J.C. Penney. In 1963 downtown Gary boasted the fifth-highest retail sales volume of any shopping district in the Chicago area. But after Hatcher came to power a commercial exodus followed the residential one. While the mayor fulminated against white businessmen for forsaking Gary, the new business center of northwest Indiana became U.S. 30 in Merrillville, anchored by the massive Southlake Mall.
Downtown Gary is a shell of its former self. The Genesis Center, a city-owned convention hall designed by Chicago architect Wendell Campbell, holds events only sporadically. For shopping there’s a Walgreen, and that’s about it. In June the Hurwich & Haller furniture store announced its closing after a run of 42 years. The Hotel Gary has become a residence for low-income seniors, and the Sheraton Hotel Hatcher helped launch to great fanfare has long since gone dark. In all of Gary there’s no hotel to speak of, “unless you count a spot you’d go to for four hours,” cracks an aide to Barnes. Fast-food joints aside, the city lacks restaurants; and there’s no movie theater. One respectable shopping center sits on Grant Street out by the Borman Expressway, but “there’s not what you’d call a competitive supermarket,” says Scott King. “Many folks feel they have to drive to Merrillville or Hammond for their groceries.”
Barnes’s final years brought glimmers of hope, however. From the time he took office Gary officials had been hoping to secure gaming privileges as an economic development tool. In 1993 the Republican-controlled legislature finally reached a compromise that gave casino boats to southern Indiana towns along the Ohio River and to Gary, East Chicago, and Hammond on Lake Michigan. The Indiana Gaming Commission awarded the Gary contract to Donald Trump and a partnership headed by Don Barden, a Detroit businessman.
Their two boats, scheduled to open in April, will be located at Buffington Harbor on Gary’s west side. According to Barnes, these floating casinos will create 2,500 jobs. In addition, state law will oblige their operators to turn over to the city 8 percent of gross revenues, plus a head tax of $1 a customer, an amount Barnes estimates will run to $18 million a year. The developers will also pay the city $10 million for the right to purchase land around the boats. Trump, meanwhile, intends to construct a hotel alongside the casinos, in an area that could explode economically if a consortium of northwest Indiana businessmen persuades the Bears to locate a new stadium nearby. And Barden, who seems willing to go it alone after the loss of two partners, has committed himself to renovating the shuttered Union Station downtown.
Last April, in a deal designed to avert the takeover of O’Hare and Midway by Republican legislators in Springfield, Mayor Daley signed a pact lumping Gary’s tiny airport into a bistate airport authority. Besides a guarantee of $1.2 million a year from Chicago, Gary received reason to hope that the airfield now used only by charters and private planes would become the region’s third commercial airport.
“We’re now in a mode to attract business,” says Barnes. But some of Gary’s new investors caution against undue optimism. “We feel comfortable opening a casino in Gary or we wouldn’t be doing so,” says Bob Pickus, executive vice president of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts. “The city has good access to the Chicago metropolitan area. But it’s going to take many, many elements to get Gary back on its feet.”
This fall’s mayoral campaign pitted Scott King, the 44-year-old Democratic nominee, against Marion Williams, a 54-year-old school principal, businessman, and former president of Gary’s sanitary district, running as an independent, and Republican Diane Ross Boswell, 46, a former prosecutor and the president of the city’s police commission.
“This election is going to make history one way or another,” said Charlie Brown, a Democratic state representative since 1982. “Either we’re going to elect the first Republican mayor, and a woman at that. Or we’re going to put into the office our first independent mayor and keep the position in black hands. Or we’re going to have the first white mayor in 28 years.”
The job of mayor pays $45,000 a year, plus an additional $15,000 the chief executive earns as trustee of the sanitary district. At least for King and Williams, the job would mean a loss of earnings, but Indiana law gives the mayor of a city such as Gary a lot of power, and all three candidates said they welcomed the opportunity to use it.
Each of them mapped a road to Gary’s revival. Williams proposed adding two dozen police officers to the 250-person force, installing management by objective in city hall, and leveling much of downtown in favor of a strip mall. “My first act would be to put explosives in all the abandoned buildings and blow them up,” Williams promised. Asserting that Gary gets only bad press, Williams, the owner of a radio station in Niles, Michigan, said, “We need to control the media. We have given ourselves over to outside interests.” He was taking aim at the Post-Tribune, owned by the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.
Boswell said that if elected she’d double Gary’s police manpower over five years and expand neighborhood centers and youth programs.
King’s platform was both the most detailed and the most conservative. “Let’s run Gary like a business,” he said, taking an approach that lately has done well for big-city candidates such as Richard M. Daley and Rudolph Giuliani. He advocated a tightened city budget, public complaint sessions each month with the mayor and his staff, more money pumped into police and fire protection, and both tougher prosecution of drug offenders and better treatment for abusers.
Trying to bring big industry back to Gary is futile, King maintained. While he gave grudging approval to the casino boats and to the airport deal with Chicago, he argued that renewal lay in exploiting the city’s access to water, air, rail, and truck transportation by convincing small- and medium-size assembly, warehouse, and trucking firms to settle in the unused foreign-trade zone by the airport. King’s model: Huntsville, Alabama, which has managed to attract 30 companies, including Chrysler, to its foreign-trade zone over the last dozen years. King said a lowered property tax and the use of tax-increment financing districts (in which bonds pay for infrastructure improvements) would also spur economic development.
King said that Gary under his reign could flower like Cleveland, whose downtown renaissance makes it the nation’s reigning comeback kid. “Now there’s a city with seemingly insurmountable problems that’s done a turnaround,” he said. “Gary has to develop the same unity, a collective selfishness, to work together around the common thread of self-interest.”
For all his high-minded theorizing, King had one idea that seemed blatantly antireform. He proposed using the city’s Democratic precinct captains, called committeemen in Gary, to “facilitate communication” between residents and city hall; in other words, he wanted to convert his political party into an arm of government. “What’s the matter with that?” he wondered. “Harold Washington leaned on the neighborhood groups for help, and Daley is using churches as a free arm of service. What else could we do in Gary? Increase the payroll? We’re already bankrupt.”
The candidates stuck to the big issues in their joint appearances, though in interviews they traded potshots. When Williams touted his experience as a principal, King cited poor results on state achievement tests at Lew Wallace High, Williams’s current assignment. Williams argued that he’d improved conditions at Wallace in his four years there but that a renaissance at such a troubled school would take longer.
And who was King to complain? asked Williams: in his 15 years in Gary his community involvement had been minimal and he had no administrative experience. “We don’t need an OJT [on-the-job-training] mayor,” said Williams. King countered by pointing to his law firm. With five attorneys it’s the largest in Gary, King said, and requires managerial skills. The firm has sponsored kids’ baseball and basketball teams, he said, and helped stabilize Lake Street, the main street in Miller, by converting a former day care center into an office. Besides, sniped King, “Williams may be an administrator, but he’s one who’s failing.”
King accused Williams of owning houses on Gary’s east side that were riddled with building-code violations. “There are a few violations,” conceded Williams, “but if you went through Scott King’s own house today we could find violations.”
Williams declared that King’s occupation as a criminal defense lawyer disqualified him as a candidate. “We need a mayor who has zero tolerance for guns, gangs, and drugs,” said Williams. “King represents people who wreak havoc on our community–murderers and drug dealers–and so he’s demonstrated a tendency to coddle criminals.”
“Everyone should have a just defense,” King replied. “As a member of the bar I am obliged to see, to the best of my ability, that justice is done. I have been vigorously faithful to that obligation, and that’s the same approach I will bring to running the city.”
Unsurprisingly, King found much to denounce and Williams much to praise in Williams’s eight years as president of the sanitary district.
And then there was the issue of race. Williams adopted the campaign slogan “For all the right reasons.” The phrase, which Williams said was coined by “some of our volunteers,” was emblazoned on green billboards and yard signs all around the city, and it was widely taken as a call to vote for Williams because he was black. “It’s David Duke in reverse,” snapped Jewell Harris, King’s campaign manager. But Williams disagreed. “Some people may take the slogan as referring to ethnic identity, but the overwhelming reason behind it has to do with my qualifications and King’s lack of them. Race should not be an issue in this campaign.”
But Williams said it was. He said King was cloaking his skin color by putting up black-and-white signs that carried his name (as in Coretta Scott King), but not his picture.
Some of Williams’s supporters insisted that race gave his campaign its meaning. Richard Hatcher, now 62 and a law professor at nearby Valparaiso University, argued that blacks compose 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for less than 2 percent of its officeholders, and that the situation is even worse in Indiana. “We hold 0.6 percent of all offices in the state,” he said one afternoon in his office. “There are 155 white mayors in the state and only one black mayor, and that’s in Gary.
“I know this is going to sound antiwhite,” he went on, “but if Marion Williams is not successful we will be back to the pre-1967 position of being locked out of local government. What it will mean is that blacks have reached a stage where they have almost given up the fight, that they believe the only way they can make progress is if the white guy makes the decisions. It says to our young people that no matter how hard you work, that when you go head-to-head with a white man you are bound to lose.
“That’s the wrong message to send, a message of the re-enslavement of black America. I’m not talking about a physical enslavement, but an enslavement of the mind, that the only good things can come from whites, that blacks can’t cut it and that whites need to be brought in to get things back on track. That’s what Scott King is saying, something white people have been telling black people for centuries. That’s why I’m for Marion Williams.”
“Symbolism is nothing to be denigrated, but there are other symbols, not of African-American leadership but of pragmatic leadership, period,” said King some days later in his law office. “There’s been such a breakdown in Gary, and here I have a strong belief in what needs to be done. Not that Marion Williams or Mrs. Boswell are evil people, but they will add to the programs of the past that haven’t worked. I don’t buy symbolism. I don’t buy form over function.”
The Saturday before the O.J. Simpson jury returned its verdict, dozens of King campaign workers gathered at Democratic campaign headquarters, a large storefront on Broadway. King had won the Democratic primary in May as an outsider, but the regular party had quickly united behind him. King asked the predominantly black group of workers how they expected the Simpson decision to come down. All hands predicted acquittal. Then King delivered a short civics lecture. “If you read the Constitution, the power is with the people,” he said. “The only power that we don’t have is that which we’ve given over to government. But we never gave government the power to discriminate or to be brutal. We have to be aware of that. All right, enough about current events.”
When King concluded, the eyes of the workers quickly unglazed. “Now let’s go out, enjoy, and have a safe day,” said King. “This is one more step toward our goal of winning on November 7.”
The campaign workers, many of them committeemen, fanned out to distribute literature and talk up King’s candidacy. King had decided to skip an organizational meeting for the Million Man March taking place at the Genesis Center. “We want to stay away from there,” he explained. “This is a Baptist town, and the Baptists are all honked off about Farrakhan’s march.” Instead, he headed toward a poor neighborhood southwest of downtown. He was accompanied by Gary Young Democrats president Darrian Goodman and a bodyguard. “Scott hasn’t gotten any threats, but you never know,” explained the bodyguard.
The three men walked up blocks composed of small houses and apartment buildings, some boarded up, with vacant lots, dead trees, and overgrown parkways. It was a warm day, and King, a thick-bodied man, had on a print shirt, wash-and-wear slacks, and tan sneakers. He looked like a suburban golfer who’d wandered off the links into the inner city.
But he knew his way around. As he pushed through front gates he kept an eye out for a bowl of water–a sure sign the home owner kept a guard dog–and whenever he saw the water he retreated.
The residents greeted him warmly. A young man in a well-maintained house with stone lions on its porch recognized King. “You already got my vote, man,” he said. “You was my brother’s lawyer.” Moments later, King came to a split-level with an open garage door. He exchanged warm words with the old man sitting on a bench inside the garage. “That’s Geometry Jones,” King explained back on the stump. “I defended his grandson, Geometry Jones III.”
Then King encountered a Marion Williams supporter, a large man in a green shirt who also was leafleting the neighborhood. He gave King the once-over and said with a smile, “Mr. King, welcome to the black community.” King looked away and walked on.
Soon Rudy Clay, a county commissioner, Gary’s Democratic chairman, and King’s most prominent backer, drove by and curbed his car. “I’m on my way to a funeral, but let’s campaign for a spell,” said the wiry Clay. Slipping off his suit coat, Clay, a popular figure in Gary, bounded up front steps at seniors peering suspiciously through metal security doors. They brightened at the sight of him.
But people were also delighted to see the less ebullient King. “Why Scott King, as I live and breathe!” cried a woman at one front door, holding a cup of coffee. “You got my vote, for real.” Once Clay had gone on to his funeral (after handing Darrian Goodman some gospel CDs to distribute), King’s party made its way down a gravel alley where a man polishing an Eldorado convertible pledged his vote and teenagers lounging on kitchen chairs hooted his name.
The campaign procession made its way east on 25th Avenue toward Broadway. “There’s Roosevelt High School, the most revered high school in Gary,” King pointed out. “Glenn Robinson [a forward on the Milwaukee Bucks] graduated from there, and so did my wife, in 1976.” (A Roosevelt alumnus left unmentioned by King was Marion Williams.)
A laid-off steelworker in a yellow sweatshirt shouted: “Hey, Scott King, Scott King. Our new mayor! The man himself! I’m going to give you a dollar donation and you is going to find me a job. And, hey, how about Broadway? Is that a scummy area or what? It would be great if there were a movie theater down there, or anything. People come to Gary from Alabama or Texas, and we ain’t got nothing to show for ourselves.”
King thinks reinvigorating downtown demands establishing a discount-shopping mall on Broadway (along the lines of Lighthouse Place in Michigan City) and listing some buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and then renovating them “to give the area an old-town feel.”
“We have to get our reputation back,” King told the steelworker. “Gary has to develop credibility.”
“Screw that corporate bullshit,” mumbled a companion of the steelworker. But the steelworker wasn’t listening–he was reaching down into his sock to fetch a dollar.
Scott King grew up on the far northwest side of Chicago, in an area called Schorsch Village. His father, Lou King, a truck driver, divorced his mother, Laverne, when Scott was 12, and vanished from sight. “To this day,” says Laverne, “we don’t know if he’s dead or alive.” The Kings had four sons, with Scott the oldest. The second youngest, Michael, committed suicide in 1974 at the age of 18.
“Scott was a good kid,” recalls Laverne, who supported her children doing factory work and eventually as an office manager. “I didn’t have a lot of problems with him. I have to say he was always very logical, someone who could reason. When he was five years old he argued me out of something–I don’t remember what anymore–and I said to him, ‘Scott, it would be a waste if you didn’t become a lawyer.'”
He attended Luther North High School, graduated from Concordia College (now University) in River Forest, and, true to his mother’s dream, enrolled in Valparaiso’s law school. After graduating, he and his first wife, whom he’d met at Concordia, moved to her hometown of Baltimore, where he represented a construction union. In 1980 he moved to Gary to take a job with Jack Crawford, the recently elected prosecuting attorney for Lake County.
“He was a wonderful deputy prosecutor, and he moved up quickly to handle many of the heavier murder cases,” says Crawford, who is now a defense attorney in Indianapolis. King still enjoys reminiscing about the cases he tried and won for Crawford, but after four years he moved on to the U.S. attorney’s office in Hammond. “They paid more money,” he says.
He prosecuted narcotics cases, serving on a task force with state and federal agencies. “A lot of it involved grand jury work,” he says, “but the bureaucracy got very stifling. Nothing egregious, but you’d have a brief due and you’d get it to the secretary three days before. I’d arrive the day before the grand jury appearance, and nothing had been typed up. It was very frustrating.” In 1984 he quit to go into private practice in Gary, two years later establishing a partnership with Jim Meyer, also a former prosecutor.
At King and Meyer, King specialized in criminal defense and civil rights litigation. “Defendants in Gary were used to getting B-grade legal service,” remarks King, “but we’re aggressive.” Hard-charging attorneys do not come cheap, but King points out that Gary, despite its problems, retains a relatively prosperous middle class, “and they have family members that get into trouble. I’ve had no trouble getting paid.”
By 1990 King was living in Miller with his second wife, Irene, an African-American he’d met when she interned in the county prosecutor’s office, and with their three young children. He’d supported Thomas Barnes against Hatcher in 1987. “I held out high hopes for great things under Barnes,” says King, “but he brought only ineptness and fiscal irresponsibility.”
Tuesday was supposed to be garbage-collection day in King’s neighborhood. But the pickup was irregular, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management was threatening to shut down the Gary landfill. “You never knew if the garbage was going to be picked up or not,” says King, “and after several weeks when it just seemed to sit there I got frustrated enough to want to do something.”
Not just “something.” In 1991 he decided to run for mayor, joining a field that would star Barnes and Hatcher in a rematch of 1987. “I had no political experience except I’d been senior class president in high school,” says King, “and people said, ‘Shit, that white boy ain’t going to get 1,000 votes in this town.’ But it’s like when you try a case. You know that you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, but psychologically you project yourself as the winner.” His only formal Democratic support came from Ruby Johnson, a Miller precinct committeeman who’d been introduced to King by her daughter Jamelba, a sheriff’s employee. “Sincere is an easy word to say,” says Ruby Johnson, “but Scott was down-to-earth. Plus, he was independent of city hall.”
King’s few campaign workers noticed he was striking a chord. “Black people are funny,” says Darnail Lyles, an associate at King and Meyer and an African-American. “If they don’t care what you’re saying, they will tell you straight up. But when Scott came to the door people were receptive right away. He’s the blackest white man I’ve ever met.”
Support from a local doctor helped King build a $50,000 war chest. His youngest brother, Jeff, functioned as his advertising consultant. Gary is a low-wattage media market, with one radio station, the Post-Tribune, three black-oriented weeklies, a PBS outlet, and cable television. Elections are won the old-fashioned way, through precinct work, yard signs, billboards, and the support of ministers. King was lucky. The cheap 30-second spots he bought on cable television coincided with the gulf war. “Everyone was watching CNN,” he says, “and so it became the equivalent of my being on channels two, five, and seven in Chicago. The exposure was incredible.” Yet on the eve of the spring primary, King was still perceived as “a fly on an elephant’s ass,” in the words of Representative Charlie Brown, a Hatcher supporter.
King racked up some 9,500 primary votes and came within 500 ballots of edging out Hatcher for second place. King’s strongest support came not from the whiter areas such as Miller, where a vote for King was seen as a vote for the unpopular Hatcher, but from the city’s low-rise housing projects, which he actually carried. “People he’d represented or their relatives lived there,” speculates Charlie Brown. Irene King hails from a large Gary family, the Smiths, and that’s another factor some observers associated with her husband’s strong showing. “There was also a lack of black pride in a segment of the community, a feeling that maybe white folks can do it better,” says Brown, “and here was King, someone with new ideas.”
Three weeks after the primary Jeff King committed suicide, the second of King’s brothers to die by his own hand. He was 29 years old. “Jeff was a manic-depressive, but he was on medication,” says Laverne King. “Scott and Jeff were awfully close, and Scott took the loss hard.” On Sunday mornings in summer the brothers used to take Scott’s motorboat out onto Lake Michigan; since Jeff’s death the boat has gone virtually unused.
Midway through Barnes’s second term, King began thinking seriously of running again. With Jeff King gone, Scott needed a political alter ego, and he found one in Jewell Harris, a lobbyist and former state representative. “Scott asked me to lunch,” recalls Harris. “I didn’t know him, and sitting there I got this impression of–how to say it?–sincerity. He came across like he cared about Gary.” Within a month Harris had agreed to manage King’s campaign. “I’m proud of being an African-American,” Harris says, “and I want African-Americans to be leaders in Gary. But you must realize that you’re talking about an election here, and you can only play the hand you’re dealt. Of the prospects who were out there, I thought Scott was the best there was.”
Barnes had decided not to seek a third term (the mayor says he was honoring a two-term pledge, while private polls reportedly showed him out of favor), and now he threw his support in the Democratic primary behind state representative Earline Rogers, a leading proponent of casino gambling. Hatcher backed Charles Graddick, who’d resigned after 11 years as city judge to make the race. “No political person of any consequence was with us,” says Harris, “but we went door-to-door, precinct to precinct, and we never stopped.”
King’s core message–“about cleaning up the city and picking up the garbage,” in Harris’s words–reflected the candidate’s chronic irritation at bureaucratic failure. “Here in Gary there is rampant discontent,” he said in April at a candidates’ debate. He then told a story about having to pour concrete for an addition to his house, and receiving a form from the city that at the top cited the procedure for being in violation of the law, but at the bottom said it was OK. “It’s kind of symbolic of what’s going on in city government.”
To outward appearances, circumstances seemed to be cutting Rogers’s way: King was white, and Graddick was reported to owe back taxes, while Rogers received the endorsement of the Post-Tribune as “a champion of Gary causes.” But early in the evening of May 2, primary day, Rogers’s daughter brought her the results from a precinct near her home. King had carried it by 30 votes. “I knew we were in trouble,” says Rogers. At King headquarters on Broadway, precinct committeemen were bringing Jewell Harris cards with results from random precincts, each indicating a King win. “It’s all over,” Harris told King, whose eyes filled with tears.
King wound up with 44 percent of the vote, against 31 percent for Graddick and just 22 percent for Rogers. King captured each of Gary’s six districts and 129 of its 148 precincts, tying in another two. Says Harris, “The black taxpayers of Gary, Indiana, wanted change, and it didn’t matter if you were blue, green, white, or yellow, the candidate who stood for change took the brass ring.”
But this was not the only interpretation of King’s victory. Rogers thinks she and Graddick lost because they were too closely linked to Barnes and Hatcher. She believes she had an additional problem as a black woman: “Some people feel African-American females should step back and be cheerleaders for the males.” She also sees reverse racism at play in King’s victory. “Scott King said in his campaign that he’d bring business and industry back into this community,” Rogers observes. “He didn’t say he could do that because he was white, but that’s what you heard on the street. People need jobs, and they were suckered in.”
“We split the black vote,” says Charlie Brown, who supported Graddick. He adds that the black despair that fueled King in 1991 was even deeper four years later: “There’s more hopelessness out there than ever. The pride and confidence in our own people is gone, and we feel we have to look to the white man to survive.”
“Scott King’s message isn’t all that profound,” muses a local businessman. “All he ever says is, ‘If we stop fighting and start focusing on our problems we can solve them.’ Regardless of that, and the fact that he’s never done anything in the community, he was the logical choice for most people, with race not much of a factor. He may be a white driving a Volvo, but his wife and his kids are black, and you heard comments like, “Well, if they trust him, he must be all right.’ He’s seen as neither a white man nor a black man, but as some kind of wedge in between.”
Mayor Barnes was attending a conference in Senegal when he heard the results. “I don’t know if you have shocks in this job,” he says now, “but there are some surprises that are greater than others, and this [the primary result] was in the greater category.”
Within weeks, a meeting at Charlie Brown’s lakefront townhouse in Miller focused on which African-American might conceivably mount an independent challenge to King in the general election. The consensus was for Marion Williams. “His downside was name recognition, ’cause he wasn’t widely known as a politician,” says Brown. “But the upside was that he was a fresh face, not warmed-over soup like me. And he had the personal resources to jump-start a campaign.”
Williams distributed his petitions and announced for office on June 17. Diane Boswell, the Republican candidate who’d received a paltry 200 votes in her primary, was never considered a factor. But even Williams faced what Brown considered “an overwhelming uphill fight”–for in Gary taking the Democratic primary is tantamount to victory in the general election. (That almost hadn’t been true in 1967, when fearful whites pumped up the candidacy of Republican furniture dealer Joseph Radigan and almost denied Hatcher the mayoralty.)
“The party organization in Gary is very strong,” says Jack Crawford, King’s old boss. “The market has so little TV that they can put all the money into the precincts, some legitimate and some not. It’s not unusual on election day for the precinct committeeman to take a voter to the polls and tell the person to pull the straight-ticket lever. If he doesn’t, the committeeman gives him hell.” That King and organization Democrats running for city clerk, city judge, and city councilmen were now all running as one ticket compounded Williams’s problem. Worse yet, all the labor endorsements went to King.
But if Williams could unite the vote that had gone to Rogers and Graddick in the primary, or if he could reach the 50 percent of the registered voters who had sat out the earlier contest, he had a chance.
Williams hired Curtis Strong, a former president of the local NAACP, to manage his drive. A robust man with a toothy smile, Williams set out on foot into the neighborhoods shaking hands and wooing votes; he’d worn out three pairs of shoes a month by the end of September. His billboards appeared well before King got his mounted; his radio and television ads began to air; and he tried to kick up some dirt. It seemed that King had temporarily locked away the gun a client accused in a 1993 homicide had asked him to hold. Williams and his backers blasted King for withholding evidence; but King denied wrongdoing, and the county prosecutor and a state disciplinary panel both ultimately agreed with him.
Meanwhile, the racial rhetoric heated up. In a letter in May to the Post-Tribune, the Reverend Colvin Blanford, the influential minister of Christ Baptist Church on the east side, acknowledged that “we live in a white racist region” but branded a campaign based on race–by implication, the one Williams was launching–as “un-Christian.” Hatcher fired back in a letter of his own: “Politically speaking, African-Americans are sliding backwards at an alarming rate. Their limited gains won at such great sacrifice are being lost almost on a daily basis. That is why Blanford, of all people, should applaud Marion Williams for his courage and conviction.” In October, according to various news accounts, Barnes wrote potential contributors to the Williams campaign that “regrettably Mr. Williams’ challenger is Caucasian, has no record of contributions to Gary . . . ” After the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March, Williams would say, “Self-empowerment is a sense I’m feeling now.”
“The Williams people call us house niggers or Uncle Toms, or they say we have a slave mentality,” said Jamelba Johnson late in the campaign. “They’re desperate. I tell ’em that they do not determine who my brother is.”
A so-called 10,000 Man March called for Williams on a rainy evening at the Genesis Center a week before the election drew a disappointing 800 people. A series of debates revealed him as stiff and unfocused. King, well versed on most subjects, stuck to his theme of running Gary like a business and delivered impassioned closing statements.
The Williams campaign never caught fire. Prominent African-American politicians such as Earline Rogers and Charlie Brown didn’t endorse him. Neither did many of the city’s 40 ministers.
The Sunday before the election the Post-Tribune endorsed King. “Things are going our way,” Jamelba Johnson said. “I go to college at Indiana University Northwest, and I take public transportation to get there. Wherever I am–on the bus, standing on the corner, or in the lunch line–folks notice me wearing a Scott King pin and approach and talk to me about him. They say they believe he’s the best qualified. I never hear anything negative about him.”
Within minutes after the polls closed on election day, Jewell Harris knew from the results at scattered precincts that his candidate was winning in a landslide. After a yearlong effort costing $200,000, King would take 78 percent of the vote, to Williams’s 18 percent and Boswell’s 4 percent. “I don’t want the same old political regime,” said Sam Roberts Jr., a Gary police officer who’d voted for King. “We need to move in a new direction. Race has nothing to do with this.”
Just before eight o’clock King stepped before the microphones at his headquarters. Dressed in a black double-breasted suit, he tenderly introduced his family. Ordinarily, his nine-year-old son Justin would speak, King said, but the boy had been doing Jim Carrey imitations lately. “And you know what happened with Mayor Giuliani and his son,” he joked. A disc jockey played “The Right Kind of Lover,” and King said, “That’s the first time a mayor has been brought on with that, but in a way it’s appropriate because–I love you, Gary!”
He insisted the campaign hadn’t been about color. “What it was about, it seems to me, is people who want a better life, people who want safe streets and clean parks and better schools and opportunity for their children, people who want a growth in business beyond the corner street gang.” He told reporters that one of his first acts as mayor, when he takes office on January 1, would be to order a complete audit of city government. “You have to know how deep a hole you’re in before you choose the right length of ladder to get out of it,” he said.
Boswell showed up in person to concede, and King embraced her. In his concession Williams congratulated King, and he linked his loss to the power of the Democratic Party and to reverse racism on the part of the predominantly black electorate. “People in the community believe that a non-African-American can do a better job than an African-American,” he said.
But Jewell Harris read the numbers differently. “This says to me that good government is more important than divisive racism. That’s the message in this.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Cynthia Howe.