Northwest Indiana has produced no musical artist more celebrated than Gary’s own Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. If, however, the region were to go looking for an anthem — a song that truly captures its essence — it might have to turn to another MJ who rode the waves of Top-40 radio in the 1970s: Michael Johnson, the voice behind a ballad whose title pretty much says it all … Bluer Than Blue.
In the vernacular of modern American politics, where ideology and party identification are reduced to hues on a color wheel, the area in question — Indiana’s 1st Congressional District — is indeed bluer than blue. The district, which encompasses all of Lake and Porter counties as well as the western third of LaPorte County, has a D+8 rating from the widely respected Cook Political Report, meaning it’s 8 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, based on recent presidential elections. What’s more, the district hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives since it elected Harry E. Rowbottom in 1928. (Truth be told, Republicans would probably just as soon forget about him. During his third and final term in Congress, Rowbottom was convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for appointments to the U.S. Post Office.)
The Democratic Party’s decades-long dominance in Indiana’s 1st Congressional District is largely attributable to Gary, in northern Lake County. The Indiana General Assembly has redrawn the district’s boundaries after every decennial census, adding a county or two here, removing a township or two there. The one constant, however, has been Gary, which has been overwhelmingly Democratic for as long as even the community’s oldest residents can remember.
Gary and the Democratic Party joined hands nearly a century ago. Their enduring relationship — like most almost everything in Gary — grew out of the steel industry. Gary was founded in 1906 by United States Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation, and named for the company’s chairman, Elbert H. Gary. A subsidiary of the steelmaker, the Gary Land Company, oversaw the construction of houses, streets and sanitary sewers and then launched a national advertising campaign promoting the nascent community as “Magic City” and the “City of the Century.” Eager to work at what would soon become the largest steel mill on the planet, jobseekers flocked to the city from the Deep South, as well as Europe and Mexico. By 1920, almost 30% of the people living in Gary were foreign-born. By 1930, thanks to the Great Migration, close to 18% of the city’s residents were black and 3.5% were Hispanic.
Gary’s early steelworkers toiled in grueling conditions during shifts that typically lasted 12 hours, The Times of Northwest Indiana noted in a 2017 retrospective. The work could be deadly. In 1910, nine men died at the Inland Steel Mill in nearby East Chicago. For years, area steelmakers thwarted workers’ attempts to organize. Frustrations boiled over in 1937 when steelworkers from Chicago and Northwest Indiana went on strike at several area steel companies, including Inland Steel, Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Chicago police ended up killing 10 unarmed demonstrators in what would become known as the Memorial Day Massacre. “Over the next few years, all the major steel mills across Northwest Indiana became unionized,” The Times noted. “They helped lift Northwest Indiana blue-collar workers up into the middle class, bringing prosperity to the state’s second-largest metro area and allowing future generations to head off to college.”
By the 1960s, however, trouble signs started to appear. Steel imports, especially from Japan, began to erode domestic producers’ market share — and profits. The trend accelerated throughout 1970s and into the 1980s. Layoffs and plant closures were rampant. In all, more than 30 steel companies across the United States entered bankruptcy. Because of its dependence on the steel industry, Gary suffered disproportionately. Many of the community’s longtime residents, especially white residents, packed up and moved to nearby communities, leaving behind scores of empty houses and apartments. Downtown’s marquee retailers, such Goldblatt’s, JC Penney and Sears, followed their customers. Many of the shops and small businesses that decided to stay eventually closed their doors. As employment figures, commercial occupancy rates and property-tax receipts plunged, crime skyrocketed. In the mid-1990s, Gary held the dubious distinction of being the nation’s “murder capital.” As the 20th century came to an end, Gary was mired in “chronic disinvestment and decay,” whereas neighboring communities were experiencing something of a boom — a boom built largely on Gary’s misfortune, according to a 2014 analysis by the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. “The effects of white flight, redlining by banks, and the further downsizing and outsourcing of industry continued to isolate Gary’s population.”
That isolation encouraged many in the city to adopt something of an us-against-the-world mentality — both figuratively and, when it came to competition from global manufacturers with unlimited access to cheap labor, literally. Anyone attempting to understand Gary’s political climate must, therefore, keep three things in mind: (1) While Gary may have started out as a company town, it soon became an unapologetic union stronghold; (2) the United Steelworkers have been one of the city’s biggest powerbrokers since the union’s founding in 1942; and (3) the United Steelworkers are reliably Democratic. (From 1990 to 2016, according to the organization InfluenceWatch, the United Steelworkers PAC gave $18 million to Democratic candidates and $73,600 to Republicans — a ratio of approximately 245-to-1.)
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Although much diminished and largely reconstituted, the U.S. steel industry remains the backbone of Gary’s economy.
How can you tell? On the official government website that was maintained by the 1st District’s former congressman, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, you could hover over “Issues” in the site’s main navigation bar and get a pulldown menu featuring nine subjects, including “Infrastructure and Transportation,” “Jobs and Economy” and “Understanding the Affordable Care Act.” The very first item on the list, however, is “Defending American Steel,” and the last one is “Congressional Steel Caucus,” which Visclosky formerly chaired. In other words, when it comes to key issues in the district, it’s no exaggeration to say the list starts, and stops, with steel.
If there’s a runner-up, at least in terms of economic impact, it’s legal gambling. Northwest Indiana has been benefitting from the industry for almost 25 years now, and Gary is banking on an even bigger return when the Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana — a $300 million land-based casino — opens. Developers maintain the new complex — featuring 1,650 slot machines, 80 table games, six restaurants, a sportsbook, a retail shop and a 2,000-seat theater — will generate at least $20 million in annual tax revenue for Gary and surrounding communities. The facility’s construction has created about 1,000 jobs, and, once it’s up and running, the Hard Rock will employ some 1,600 people — even more once a planned hotel is completed.
Gary’s wager on legal gambling dates to 1993 when the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation clearing the way for up to five so-called “riverboat casinos” to operate in communities along Lake Michigan. Two licenses were set aside for Gary. Competition for the licenses was fierce, but one would-be operator waged a particularly aggressive campaign: Donald Trump. In its presentation to the Indiana Gaming Commission in 1994, according to reports from the Associated Press, Trump’s team touted the New York mogul’s “incomparable experience” and his “superior marketing and advertising abilities.” The future president promised that at least two-thirds of the 1,200 full-time jobs created by his casino would go to women and minorities from the Gary area. He promised ownership stakes to eight Indiana investors. He promised to establish — and endow, with $11.5 million in casino stock — a charitable foundation that would support local causes. In an attempt to close the deal, he even brought his Miss USA beauty pageant to the city — twice.
The Indiana Gaming Commission awarded Trump one of the two Gary licenses, but, as the AP noted, even before the 340-foot long Trump Princess was launched, the project was creating waves — for all the wrong reasons. A 1996 lawsuit alleged that people of color were being hired for minimum-wage jobs — as valets and janitors, for example — while whites were being recruited for better-paying positions on the casino floor. Another suit claimed that Trump stiffed his supposed Hoosier partners and reneged on his pledge to help charities. Courtroom battles continued, off and on, for several years, but, eventually, all of them yielded the same basic conclusion: Trump’s promises weren’t legally binding.
In 2004, Trump Hotel & Casino Resorts Inc., the parent company of Trump’s Gary casino, sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The following year, Trump sold his company’s interests in the Trump Princess for $253 million. Through a spokeswoman, Trump told the AP that everyone ended up a winner: “It worked out very well and was very good for Gary, Indiana.”
Most Hoosiers touched by the deal had a different take. “What you had was a slick business dealer coming in,” Roy Pratt, a former member of the Gary Common Council, said in an interview with the AP. “He got as much as he could and then he pulled up and left.” David Ross, a former member of the Indiana Gaming Commission, told the news service that Trump did leave behind one thing of lasting value: an all-too-painful life lesson for those who succumbed to his sales pitch. “What you have to know is that Trump is for Trump, and he’s not for any black voters or anybody,” Ross said. “What he’s looking for is to make some money for Trump.”
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When a congressional district is as decidedly blue as Indiana’s 1st District, the general election tends to be, well, anticlimactic. The real action takes place in the primary. The 1st District, however, further upends the political norm: Here, historically, even primaries have been yawners. The reason is twofold: First, once the district’s voters send someone to Washington, they generally keep them there. Second, the people sent to Washington to represent the district generally stay a long time — a very long time.
Since the aforementioned Harry E. Rowbottom left office in March 1931, nearly 90 years ago, only six individuals have represented the 1st District in the U.S. House — and two of them account for nearly 70 years of those 90 years: Ray Madden served from January 1943 to January 1977, and Visclosky has held the seat since January 1985, making him the longest-serving congressman in Indiana history. The other officeholders: John Boehne Jr. (1931-1933) was gerrymandered into another district; William Schulte (1933-1943) lost his bid for a sixth term; Adam Benjamin Jr. (1977-1982) died in office; and Katie Hall (1982-1985) lost to Visclosky in the 1984 primary.
Not surprisingly, folks perked up last November when Visclosky announced that he would not seek a 19th term. The prospect of an open seat — the first in more than a generation — elicited a long list of congressional hopefuls. No fewer than 14 Democrats filed the paperwork necessary to compete in the primary, which ultimately was postponed from May to June because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, fifth-term Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. declared his candidacy the same day Visclosky announced his retirement.
By the time the Feb. 7 filing deadline rolled around, the Democratic field featured several other political notables, including state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon of Munster; North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan; Gary attorney Melissa Borom, a former congressional staffer; Valparaiso attorney Jim Harper, the party’s nominee for Indiana secretary of state in 2018; and Gary attorney John Henry Hall, the widower of former U.S. Rep. Katie Hall.
Six Republicans, four of whom work in law enforcement, entered the race. The most recognizable name on that list was perennial candidate Mark J. Leyva, who, according to VoteSmart.org, had tried nine times previously to unseat Visclosky.
Buoyed by endorsements from Visclosky and the United Steelworkers, Mrvan won the Democratic primary. Although he was outspent by McDermott, Reardon and Harper, Mrvan garnered 33.7% of the vote and outpolled McDermott, the second-place finisher, by 4.5 percentage points. GOP voters, meanwhile, gave Leyva the green light to mount a 10th bid for the 1st District seat. He fared better against Mrvan than he had against Visclosky, holding the Democrat to 56% of the general election vote; Visclosky’s winning share in 2018 was 65%.
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Mrvan, 51, was born and raised in Hammond, a Lake County community just west of Gary. After graduating from Morton High School in 1987, Mrvan earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ball State University.
Mrvan, who now lives in Highland, worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative and as a licensed mortgage broker before becoming trustee of Lake County’s North Township, which encompasses Hammond, East Chicago, Munster, Whiting and Highland. He was appointed to the post in 2005 when his predecessor pleaded guilty to tax fraud and resigned. Mrvan was elected to the office in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, 2014 and 2018. As trustee, he oversees the distribution of emergency financial assistance, including food, shelter and clothing, to the township’s neediest residents.
The officeholder attributes his interest in public service to his father, Frank E. Mrvan Jr., who served on the Hammond City Council before winning election to the Indiana Senate in 1978. He lost his Senate seat in 1994 but regained it four years later. He’s currently the Senate’s assistant minority caucus chair.
Mrvan summed up his congressional campaign in six words: “For Jobs. For Healthcare. For Us.” He says he’s also focused on supporting public education and on protecting the environment.
“It is past time that the federal government recognizes the value of science and the challenges of pollution and climate change,” the candidate said on his website. “Workers of Northwest Indiana must have safe working conditions and produce the innovation and alternative energies that are necessary to meet this challenge.”
Mrvan maintains that job one, however, is ensuring that government is prepared to respond to calamities such as the coronavirus pandemic. “For 15 years, I’ve trained for this position — to be able to assist people who are facing financial crisis, who are uncertain, and in this moment in history, that’s exactly what we have,” he told The Times of Northwest Indiana in 2020. “It’s a serious job. These are very, very serious times. I campaigned on serious issues, and I’m going to continue to do that.” — Jon Schwantes