At 28,000, East Chicago is less than half of what it was in 1960. Already beset by declining population, rising crime and failing schools brought on largely by the decline of the steel industry – like its more conspicuous neighbor, Gary – East Chicago was hit with environmental calamity in 2011 when federal officials confirmed lead contamination in neighborhoods built on the former location of a lead smelter; the city remains a Superfund site.
Nevertheless, East Chicago is the population center of House District 2, which has been represented since 1982 by the same family. Earl Lynn Harris was in his 11th term when he died of cancer about a month before the end of the 2015 session; a caucus of Democratic precinct committee officers from the district chose his widow, Donna, to complete his term. Donna Harris planned to seek election in her own right in 2016 but stepped aside for health reasons and endorsed the couple’s only child. Earl Harris Jr. is an Emmy-nominated television producer who has worked on both sides of the camera. He now has his own production company based in Indianapolis, where he spent most of his career.
In 2017, during his first session, Harris authored legislation that expanded testing for lead in the soil and water of the Superfund site; the bill passed and was signed into law. The original version of the bill was more ambitious, providing for testing throughout the city and money for East Chicago schools to help with costs incurred as a result of the lead contamination. Harris said compromise was needed for the bill to pass – to get “something rather than nothing,’’ according to an interview with the Times of Northwest Indiana. Harris serves in a badly outnumbered Democratic caucus that produces legislation that rarely reaches the governor’s desk. Since 2017, none of his bills has done so.
As with other solidly Democratic legislative districts in Lake County, the only contests in District 2 come in the spring; Republicans don’t contest the seat. In his initial primary run in 2016, Harris finished at the top of a four-candidate field in which the top three finished within 1,000 votes of one another. His margin in 2018 was much more comfortable, and he was unopposed for the nomination in 2020, clearing the way for the Harris family of East Chicago to complete a fourth decade in the Indiana House. – Kevin Morgan