Former Mayors of Gary agree
Gary Crusader Staff Report
When four former Gary mayors met on Wednesday (January 9) at Indiana University Northwest, history was made. They were joined by the current Mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, who moderated the panel discussion.
The four living mayors having served more than 50 years collectively, were: Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher, 85 years old, who was elected as the first Black mayor of a major city in 1967. Hatcher served the longest, from 1968 and ending his service as mayor in 1987; Mayor Thomas V. Barnes, 82, served from 1988 to 1995; Scott King’s tenure was from 1996 to 2006, who is now 67 years old; and Dozier Allen, Jr., 88, who served the shortest term of 16 days in 2006 after King resigned before his term was completed.
The late Mayor Rudy Clay served as mayor, being selected by a caucus to fill out King’s term. He served as mayor until Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson was elected in 2011 and re-elected in 2015.
Also historic is the fact that all of the Mayors agreed that Mayor Freeman-Wilson was on the right track in leading Gary through difficult financial waters during the forum. She is faced with social and safety concerns as well.
The forum, according to Redevelopment Director Joseph Van Dyk, was the first of a series of meetings to be held in various neighborhoods which will be the basis to develop a master plan for the city. Van Dyk is quoted as saying in a story by Carole Carlson, a freelance writer for the Post Tribune, “We’ve been working from a playbook in the ‘50s and ‘60s.” He said that a new plan would provide a new zoning code adaptable to the times of today. He also said in that story, “It’s really important we don’t lose our history and some of the great ideas that have been brought up time and again.”
The Wednesday forum proved to be valuable as each mayor recounted their expeences while in office. Mayor Hatcher recounted how almost immediately after taking office he was faced with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the riots in major cities of the country. He said he was summoned to the White House along with other public officials by then President Lyndon Baines Johnson. His recount told that he surprised the president and Vice President Hubert Humphrey by saying that Black officials were not the cause of Dr. King’s assassination. His statement ended that historic meeting, but he said shortly afterwards funds began to flow into Gary that funded senior-citizen high-rises, a dollar home program and other initiatives for the city.
It was sometimes during the forum hard to remember the mayors were at times allies, as well as adversaries over the 50 years or so of Gary’s recent history. Mayor Dozier Allen recounted how he and Mayor Hatcher had met at Valparaiso University, the only two Black students there and formed an association that led to Hatcher being elected first to the city council and then mayor and Allen being elected to the city council in 1967 when Hatcher became mayor. That was old news to the old-timers of Gary when often they are heard to speak of an organization called Muigwithania, credited for the rise of the political careers of both Hatcher and Allen. Barnes was a supporter in the early years of Mayor Hatcher’s service but defeated him for the office in 1987. He even seemed to clarify that he was cognizant, if not sympathetic, of the challenges that Hatcher faced during his service as Mayor.
Mayor Barnes recounted his experience with the casinos coming to Buffington Harbor under his watch. The audience came alive when he said that Gary officials chose Majestic Star, but not the casino owned by Donald Trump. Trump’s casino connection with Gary only lasted around five years and was believed to be a ploy to improve his image.
Scott King said public safety was his issue of priority when he served as mayor. He said he had capitalized on President Clinton’s Community Oriented Policing (COPS) program. He said it brought $4 million into Gary, which enabled them to have resources to hire more officers and other public safety needs. Those funds he said dried up when President Clinton left office in 2000. He emphasized however, that the city will benefit if in reality and perception the city is safe.
In conclusion, the mayors agreed with the direction that the city is going in. Mayor Hatcher was generous in his understanding of the challenges Mayor Freeman-Wilson faces and praised her election as president of the National League of Cities and her reach outside of Gary’s city limits. He was surprised at the criticism Freeman-Wilson had heaped upon her by a nearby local newspaper for taking on the leadership of the League of Cities. He said, “I could empathize with that. I would go to Washington and negotiate millions of dollars in grants for our city, and by the time I got back to O’Hare, the local paper was criticizing me. You have to go out of town.”
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, as moderator told the former mayors what an honor it was to stand on their shoulders.
Those citizens that attended the forum seemed to feel positive that this forum was helpful, a great start to the new year and was optimistic for the future of Gary.