By Pastor R. E. Robinson
Following the announcement of his candidacy for the Indiana First Congressional District, Attorney Jim Harper shared with Gary Crusader readers his reasons for running for Indiana’s First Congressional District seat. “We have very big issues facing Northwest Indiana and our country, whether it’s the public health crisis, or public access to quality health care or whether it is environmental justice and climate change, there are big challenges for our region and our country,” he said.
“I am very passionate about progressive solutions to these problems. I believe it’s important to have someone from the First District advocating for these solutions and I would like to be that advocate,” he revealed.
While listing his reasons for running, Harper stressed his qualifications for the job. “I have shown that as a lawyer I am committed to fighting for everybody in my community, especially those who have no one to fight for them. I think I have met those many challenges.”
Harper’s academic and professional records are impressive. “After graduating near the top of my law school class, I worked as a federal law clerk for a judge and then I moved to New Orleans to work in one of the most underserved and understaffed public defenders’ offices in the country.”
He added: “Because I am committed to equal justice for everyone, I also founded a national not-for-profit law firm that represents disabled veterans. I want to take everything I have learned from these experiences and my commitment to fight for everyone in the First District to Washington, D.C.”
When asked about the challenges representing the Northwest Indiana community that is as diverse as it is segregated, Harper offered solutions to bring about unity. “I have worked in my career to make sure I do work in every community and not just the one I am from, or not just the more affluent communities. For instance, I am proud to have volunteered for one year at the legal clinic at Trinity UCC in Gary, which is led by Pastor John E. Jackson.”
He further explained his personal commitment to justice and fair representation for all citizens.
“As a public defender, I have represented people from all over the region. I have always worked to show that I am committed to serving all people. I think that it’s important that our representative shows up in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago and also focuses on the big systemic issues that people face like inequity, segregation, and racism, and that we call out the issues in order to address them. I am proud that I have been doing that and proposing solutions in the course of my campaign.”
Health care issues:
The solutions to which he refers would address the following issues, with health care being a priority, Harper said. “In the midst of the COVID crisis, we have seen why making sure everyone has health care is so important. We have seen right here in Northwest Indiana a real disparity in the impact of the corona virus. The reality is that Black residents of Northwest Indiana have been disproportionately impacted, which is a result of decades of state and federal policies. So, we need to make sure that everybody has quality health care which is the first step in addressing the disparities we face.
“If everybody has quality health care, you will see more providers in Gary because there are more people needing health care in Gary. And that will help to address many problems.”
And, of course, Harper notes, he would address another social issue—that of inferior education in urban areas. “I think it all starts with education and the policies that have caused disinvestment from the Gary school system.
“This is a civil rights issue, and I would really like to see the federal government step in and really work to support the Gary school system and not just take money away from it,” Harper added.
As in many underserved communities, food deserts are also a big concern, and unhealthy eating habits are often the only diets that folks can follow due to the lack of neighborhood grocery stores. This inequity affects the health of a community and opens the doors to underlying chronic health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes—even in youth.
“Food deserts are a very big deal to me, and we see food deserts in urban and rural areas,” Harper said. “And so, this is one of those areas where there is room for bipartisan agreement with more conservative legislators from more rural areas where people have experienced these problems. There is actually legislation in Congress now that would address food deserts and provide incentives for food stores and other companies to fill the void.”
Harper added that, “I would absolutely support federal funding to provide incentives to food stores that serve Gary.”
Sufficient transportation would also be high on Harper’s list of pressing issues.
“You can’t get around without reliable bus service. So along with this is the issue of the South Shore, which I support in connection with an affordable comprehensive bus system so that people can get around the region reliably. I would fight for increased federal funding for the Gary Public Transportation Corporation.”
Criminal justice system:
The Congressional candidate also shared his thoughts about the criminal justice system, which disproportionately negatively affects Indiana’s African American population.
“There is absolutely an impact on African Americans, and the reality is that African Americans have been targeted by the criminal justice system through its policies. As a public defender, I am very passionate about this and have seen firsthand just how broken the system is.”
Harper offered a few solutions to tackle this broken system. “In the first place, I would work to bring down the incarceration rate, which is not only the highest rate in the world but is a waste of money; it breaks up families and introduces people into a criminal justice system that is not going to help them but hurt them in the long run and reduce their likelihood of success.”
He discussed the inequities in mandatory sentences, explaining, “Then I would work to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and alternatives to prison-like community service that allows people to be near their families. Also, I would work for reducing pretrial incarceration by ending cash bail. The decision on whether someone remains in jail pending trial should not be based on how much they make but whether [if] they are a danger to their community or are likely to flee.
“They should not be held in jail because their family could not come up with a couple hundred bucks,” he remarked.
And as a final measure to help those unfairly incarcerated, Harper said: “The last thing I would look at, is funding for public defender offices so that everyone has a good attorney regardless of ability to pay.”
Harper piggybacked on the health care issue—particularly around Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and how he sees these plans affecting the quality of life for Gary citizens.
“Both pieces of legislation are important. I believe health care is a human right, and it’s totally unacceptable that the United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not recognize that. We have 30 million people without health care. That’s why I am such a strong supporter of Medicare for All. Medicare is a program that works. It is more cost-effective than private insurance and, if we expand it and make it better and apply it to everybody, we will go a long way in eliminating the disparities we have talked about.”
Harper further explained what he felt are the benefits of a proposed “Green New Deal,” which is also important not just in terms of climate change but also environmental justice and environmental racism. “It is important that we are investing in our communities and investing in people to create jobs. I am confident the Green New Deal would not only tackle climate changes but lift up communities like Gary.”
And along the lines of climate control come issues of environmental racism.
“The reality is that in Northwest Indiana and in the United States, we see far more pollution in communities of color, and that is on full display in Hammond, East Chicago, Gary and Michigan City. For too long, we have let companies get away with polluting communities of color, including Gary, and not held them accountable as they would have been in more affluent communities. We need to talk about and act on the reality of environmental racism.”
Harper said that a way to attack this issue would be to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure they are living up to the requirements of the law and cleaning up what has happened due to a history of environmental contamination. He said that’s going to take a lot of federal investment.
“We saw it in East Chicago with the lead crisis where families lived for decades with lead pollution and it’s really going to take a huge investment to deal with the harm that’s been done to restore our clean air, water and soil.”
Another thing that would assist Gary residents he added is the recently enacted Community Benefits Agreements.
“Making sure we have good-paying jobs for Gary residents is absolutely critical. Gary has a lot to offer and we need to bring jobs back to Gary. It is critically important that if a company comes to Gary with all that it has to offer, including public subsidies, the company [should] also invest in the city, and the best way to do that is to hire Gary residents,” Harper commented.
And finally, he said: “I am a strong supporter of Community Benefits Agreements, but they are a first step, along with health care, transportation, federal investment and criminal justice reform.”
R.E. Robinson, the Senior Pastor of St. John Baptist Church since 2015 has served in ministry for 26 years. A native of Hammond, he pursues his passion for social justice issues through ministry.