I’ve just returned from a week in Northwest Indiana, America’s post-industrial wasteland, known affectionately by locals as “the region.” I am still trying to process all I’ve seen, particularly my time driving around Gary. It occurred to me, last Sunday morning, trying to remain inconspicuous, with my rental car plates, three-piece suit and camera dangling from my neck that solving Gary’s many problems would go far in solving many of our urban problems elsewhere.
Earlier in the week, I read an article about Michelle Obama and her desire to campaign “off script,” creating a persona sans spin and lacking the usual campaign-speak. Barak’s wife seemed to want to speak from the heart, foregoing talking points created by professional PR people. Thinking about this, I wondered if a campaign rooted in reality and focused primarily on the people on the ground would still work in 2008. For all the talk about the issues and political pandering, particularly to issues of poverty, it appears to an outsider like me that most, if not all of this is just talk-nothing more. We all know that the obscene amounts of money required to purchase TV time and other advertising gives politicians, even newcomers like Obama, a convenient excuse to go right to the corporate till and load up.
Maybe I was downwind from the towering smokestacks of U.S. Steel and the fumes had fouled my thinking, but I began envisioning a scenario about a campaign stop in Gary. I had an idea for an event in America’s very own version of a war zone city, like Bagdhad, would help dispel much of the cynicism most voters feel toward politicians, as more often then not, they get whisked from photo op to photo op, nary a hair out of place and too often, in front of carefully selected supporters and donors.
Gary, Indiana, a once proud city that symbolized America’s industrial prowess, has fallen on hard times over the last three decades. Situated along the southern shore of Lake Michigan and only a short commute from Chicago, is a place that many non-residents and travelers have come to avoid like the plague, fearing it like no other place in America. Just read some of the comments sometime on various travel websites and you’ll get a quick sense that Gary isn’t a place you want to stop in, even for gas, or a quick bite. Worse, when you actually spend time driving around its various neighborhoods, in the shadow of dilapidated buildings designed by legendary architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, you grasp how far the place has fallen, bypassed by economic policies benefiting America’s rich, ravaged by drugs and gangbangers and plagued by corruption at all levels.
If the field of presidential hopefuls want Americans to embrace them as legitimate, then staging a political debate, in downtown Gary, at the Genesis Convention Center, opening it up to anyone who wants to come, would help promote some real hope in a city that’s had precious little for nearly 30 years. Maybe Oprah Winfrey could make the trek from Chicago, via the Skyway and be seated in the VIP section down front. Other notable politicians and community leaders from the area should also be invited. I suggest that the candidates and some of the dignitaries arrive mid-afternoon and load onto a bus and spend time riding through Gary’s once majestic and now crumbling neighborhoods. Of course, security is always an issue in certain areas of town, so doing in daylight would be a much safer option and I’d suggest a police escort, even though I didn’t have one on my recent visit.
Since soul food and in particular, southern BBQ is one element that Gary does right, maybe the bus could find a rib joint near downtown, where the candidates could break bread over some authentic local cuisine, before heading over the convention center. If there was one close enough, maybe the entourage could walk off their chicken, pulled pork, corn bread, cole slaw and beans, with a short jaunt over to the center, to prep a bit before the TV lights and moderator brought them back to reality.
I think this event would favor certain candidates, particularly in light of Gary’s demographic makeup. According to the 2000 census figures, Gary’s racial makeup is nearly 85 percent African-American. One out of every four residents live below the federal poverty line, including nearly 40 percent of those who are below 18. The per capita income of Gary’s residents is just over $14,000 a year. If candidates want voters to believe they represent all voters, not just the uber wealthy, then Gary might be a campaign stop worth making.
Here’s my handicap of the night by candidate:
Barak Obama: As the great hope for African-Americans and in light of his political credentials having been forged in neighboring Illinois, Obama would be considered the “home town favorite” and possessing a solid advantage going in. He could use Gary as an opportunity to dispel the charges against him by some leaders in the black community that’s he’s an “Uncle Tom” and just another political opportunist.
Of all the candidates, Obama probably is the only one that even has a sense about some of Gary’s difficulties, given its close proximity to Chicago.
Hillary Clinton: Don’t dismiss her, as she has some “cred,” being married to Bill, who some dubbed “America’s first black president.” Hillary has the ability to connect with her audiences and as someone who knows her way around the inside of a black church, she wouldn’t be outside her element in Gary. Also, I’m sure she knows here BBQ, from her days in Arkansas.
John Edwards: Talks a good game when it comes to playing to the working class. With his roots in North Carolina and a dad who was a textile mill worker, he wouldn’t be lost in terms of understanding Gary’s industrial heritage. However, with his $400 haircuts and pretty boy good looks, he might not connect with most in Gary, who probably are lucky to own a $400 car. Still, Gary would be a good place for Edwards to fully grasp issues of poverty, up close and personal, not just from the perspective of a wonk, or an author.
Dennis Kucinich: Actually spent time in an American city similar to Gary, when he was mayor of Cleveland. Having been homeless as a youngster, Kucinich probably comes closest of all the candidates to knowing poverty firsthand. Of all the candidates, his policies might be the most functional in addressing some of the deep-rooted issues of hopelessness that plague many in Gary. Unfortunately, Kucinich, who connects in person, doesn’t project well enough via electronic media to have a chance.
As for the Republican field, African-Americans traditionally vote Democrat, but I’ll at least give my thoughts on the three front-runners.
Mitt Romney: How does someone named “Mitt” carry any credibility with people living in a city resembling a war zone? I suppose as governor of Massachusetts, he had some sense of urban issues, like drugs, gang activity and devastating poverty. However, his law and order agenda probably wouldn’t sit well with many in Gary, who already know someone, either family member, or close friend, doing time in jail, due to America’s failed “war on drugs.”
John McCain: McCain wouldn’t play well, either. Is it just me, or has McCain’s label as a “maverick” worn thin? If McCain’s a maverick, with his support of all things Republican, then I had to see what being a supporter of the status quo means.
Rudy Guiliani: Another strong proponent of “lock ’em up and throwing away the key” brand of law and order, his agenda for Gary would probably consist of armed patrols, driving around the streets of Gary in vehicles reminiscent of RoboCop, rounding up drug dealers and others and shipping them 30 miles to the east, to the Supermax in Westville.
Well, that’s my little fantasy, campaign-style, 2008. While it’s offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is a part of me that sees a place like Gary as symbolic for the rest of America. While urban areas nationwide have problems, it’s rare that you come face to face with an urban hell like Gary, within the continental U.S.
Gary represents a great opportunity for a political reality check for politicians who have become too detached and removed from the masses to understand the issues on a personal level that they need to, in order to know how to represent all Americans, not just their corporate donors. A candidate’s event in Gary would at least give them one night of reality and maybe, just maybe, it might make a difference, although I don’t hold out any hope that this would ever happen.
JIM BAUMER is a Maine-based writer and entrepreneur. His book, “When Towns Had Teams” (RiverVision Press, 2005) is a great summer read for baseball fans. He is now working on a follow-up book on American Fundamentalism. To read more of his thoughts, visit his blog, Words Matter.