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Can Karen Freeman-Wilson Fix Gary, Indiana?

The Harvard-educated new mayor is drawing national attention with her out-of-the-box ideas to turn Chicago’s most notorious neighbor back into a thriving city

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Mayor Freeman-Wilson
February 8, a day in the life: 11:50: Rushing to appointments. For more photos, launch the gallery »

After graduating cum laude from Harvard University and earning a degree from Harvard Law, she plunged into a rising-star career that included tours of duty as a Lake County prosecutor, a Gary city court judge, the head of the National Association of drug Court Professionals in Alexandria, virginia, and Indiana’s attorney general. For the past five years, she was a private-practice attorney in Gary.

Eventually, she realized that what she really wanted to do was to run the show. It took three tries (she lost to Scott King in 2003 and Rudy Clay in 2007), but in between she built valuable state and national connections that she could tap if—when—she became chief executive.

Her opening came last year when the man who beat her once, Rudy Clay, a flamboyant old-schooler with 1970s-style muttonchops, announced that he would not seek a second term. After a bruising primary race that included nine democratic candidates—among them Regan Hatcher, the daughter of four-term mayoral icon Richard Hatcher—Wilson-Freeman delivered a two-to-one butt-kicking.

After that, in a town that polls as blue as Lake Michigan, the election itself was a formality. Freeman-Wilson won in a landslide, pulling close to 90 percent of the vote against her Republican opponent.

One of her first moves was to call Newark’s Cory Booker. “I reached out to him immediately,” says Freeman-Wilson. “I knew we had similar cities, similar problems.”

Similar to the point of uncanny. Both Booker and Freeman-Wilson were Ivy Leaguers running midsize cities that butted up against much larger metropolises— Newark to New York, Gary to Chicago. Both of their elections marked a break from decades of ineffectual mayoral administrations. And both wanted to bring new ideas to the challenges of fixing their deeply troubled cities.

Like Booker, Freeman-Wilson has collected around her the kind of brainy gogetters, corporate titans, and economic advisers—many of them Gary natives—who would have made John F. Kennedy proud. There’s her chief of staff, B. R. Lane, a fellow Harvard grad, and J. Forest Hayes, a senior economic adviser to former Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty. One of the biggest fish she landed—at a salary of $1 a year—was Tom Collins Jr., the CEO of Hobart, Indiana-based Luke Oil and Luke Transport, whose job is to get Chicago firms to buy into the notion that Gary is a good place to do business.

“They’re not the usual suspects,” says Earline Rogers, an Indiana state senator. “Her appointments have been based on the ability to do the job as opposed to paying back political favors. I see that as perhaps the number one difference between her and other mayors.”

Shunning the typical payback system ruffled feathers, Freeman-Wilson admits. “There were a lot of folks who felt that they had worked very hard in the political campaign and that that earned them a role in government,” she says. “We certainly appreciate hard work, but politics and government are different things, and my job is to deliver good government.”

Her criteria were simple: be smart, be good, and, above all, don’t whine. “I didn’t want anyone coming into City Hall wringing their hands, talking about, ‘What are we going to do?’ did you ever watch The Flintstones with that character Schleprock? I didn’t want anybody coming to City Hall saying, ‘Wousy, wousy, woo, woo.’ ”

Early on, Freeman-Wilson connected with Bo Kemp, Booker’s former business administrator. “I was talking to her on the phone and was just very impressed—with her story, her background, what she was trying to achieve,” Kemp says. “I offered to share with her and her team what my experience was with Newark, and she took me up on it.”

Kemp flew out in August for what was scheduled to be a two-hour presentation. Eight hours later, “we had barely taken a bathroom break,” Lane says with a laugh. “We talked about financial issues, budget and balance sheets, economic development, crime. You had light bulbs going on all over the place.” Eventually Kemp volunteered to help the mayor in a more formal way. He’s now the executive director of her transition team.

Freeman-Wilson is seriously considering adopting one part of the Newark crime-fighting blueprint: the Compstat system, which tracks where crimes occur and adjusts street patrols accordingly. The approach was implemented by Booker and overseen by the director of Newark’s police, Garry McCarthy, now Chicago’s top cop. It has been credited with a 28 percent reduction in homicides and a 21 percent drop in overall crime in Newark from 2006 to 2010. “I honestly could not imagine having to tackle the scope of the problems we have without [Kemp],” says Lane. “We will be able to accomplish in two years what would have taken four because we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

* * *

Fighting crime costs money. Already nearly 80 percent of Gary’s 2012 budget goes toward police and fire. That budget, by the way, is $47 million—down from $63 million as recently as 2008—due largely to state-mandated property tax caps that kicked in this year. They put the city in a terrible financial bind just as the new mayor got started. At her State of the City address on February 24, Freeman-Wilson projected the 2012 deficit at $10 to $15 million.

To improve Gary’s desperate financial situation, the mayor has put together a blockbuster plan that includes a land-based casino, improvements to the airport that could finally make it an attractive and viable field for commercial and cargo flights, a transportation and shipping facility next to the airstrip, and possibly a teaching hospital for the Gary branch of Indiana University. The price tag for all this? “It really is too early [to say],” she says, “but our current plan is that the dollars that will be leveraged from the land-based gaming will be invested in the airport and other parts of the industrial corridor.”

Her plan is hardly a slam dunk. Freeman-Wilson can’t make it happen without approval from state legislators, who in recent years have been cool to massive spending proposals for Gary—understandable given the mismanagement and corruption that have marked some previous efforts. And believe it or not, the Indiana legislature is in recess from March through mid-November in even years like this one. The soonest her bill could come up for vote, insiders say, is early 2013.

“Gary is Gary,” says Maurice Eisenstein, an outspoken professor of political and social sciences at Purdue University. “Nothing really changes.” While Eisenstein says he holds no personal animosity toward Freeman-Wilson, he sees her falling into the same trap as her predecessors—a sort of “brass ring” syndrome. “They don’t want to do the nitty-gritty, the day-to-day stuff, the difficult things. They want the brass ring: If we can just win the lottery, we’ll be back on top.”

“In the past we have gone for the home run, the economic development effort that would be the be all and end all,” Freeman-Wilson responds. “The difference about my solution is that I’m looking to build on existing assets. I don’t have to build a stadium. I don’t have to build an interstate. I don’t have to build a rail line. I don’t have to build an airport. I don’t have to build a lake or create our proximity to Chicago. These things already exist.”

The mayor is busy laying the groundwork for the vote on her bill. “She has spent a lot of time in Indianapolis, meeting with the right people,” says Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime observer of the political scene in northern Indiana and the publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight. “She’s got a lot of allies down there, people who want to see Gary succeed.”

Her admirers include not just fellow democrats but two conservative Republicans: Greg Zoeller, Indiana’s attorney general, and Luke Kenley, a state senator. “Karen is very bright, very direct, and very focused on where she thinks she’s going,” Kenley says. “She has a chance to do a lot of good for Gary.”

Freeman-Wilson isn’t focusing only on macro solutions, mind you. For example, she has issued a call for volunteerism, including an adopt-a-park program. That’s both an appeal to civic pride and a reality-check acknowledgment that while big-ticket changes are afoot, there’s little room in the budget for block-to-block cleanup. Gary’s citizens, she says, are going to have to do their part.

When I ask her about the “savior” talk, Freeman-Wilson doesn’t exactly look comfortable, but neither does she back down. “I know people are expecting a lot. I understand people need hope. But this is so not about me. I don’t have a magic bullet.” And then it appears again: the Smile. “But I do have vision,” she says.

Luke Oil CEO Tom Collins shares it. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “Karen has the ability to see this is going to be a 20-year turnaround. She is able to look at Gary over the long term versus the short term.” As a practical matter, Collins says, the time to criticize is over. “Being critical of Gary is easy and to a certain extent lazy. At this point there are truly only two choices left: Help the cause or move out of the way.”

* * *

Along the spine of the city we travel: past abandoned cinder-block buildings whose empty windows stare back with dark, unblinking eyes; past low-slung strip malls, nail emporiums, liquor stores, and off-brand cell phone shops; past Silky King Ribs, run out of a trailer on the side of the road; past a long-deposed dairy Queen and a sign that says Noble Park, ironic against a very ignoble brick shack whose ripped-off shingles expose its roof’s scorched skeleton.

Where I see blight in the vast blocks of tumbledown houses, Freeman-Wilson sees a landscape of possibilities. “These would be great for our dollar home program,” she tells me, referring to a proposal she has put forward to let residents buy viable homes for a dollar each, provided they bring the dwellings up to code within six months.

When we pass the shuttered and abandoned Tolleston Middle School, where she went to junior high, she grows animated. Thanks to some $4 million in donations and a $500,000-plus kick-in from federal block grants, she says, it’s going to be turned into a state-of-the-art Boys and Girls Club. (Little more than a week later, she’s back in a hardhat and safety glasses, working side by side with community and corporate volunteers to clean out the building.)

On this day, we don’t take a trip out to the airport. But she visits it a couple of weeks later to gaze at an Allegiant Air plane roaring down the runway and soaring into the blue—its maiden voyage from Gary to Orlando. It’s the first commercial flight to take off from here in years. Though with flights just two days a week the airport hardly qualifies as bustling, the moment is a symbolic early win for Freeman-Wilson.

Later, as our car emerges from the “bat cave,” the garage in the basement of City Hall, the Sheraton looms before us. I glance at the 135-room wreck, a graffitied mess of rusted porch railings and broken windows. Wind whistles through the open doors. Inside, a ruptured floor lies under boulders of rubble and debris. There was talk under Mayor Clay of turning the building into a senior citizens’ home. (“That’s a done deal,” he told the Sun-Times in 2009. “It’s going to be a centerpiece.”) As with so many other projects in his administration, however, nothing came of it.

Freeman-Wilson seems to take the Sheraton’s existence as a personal affront, perhaps because it is the first thing she sees every time she leaves her office. “It’s an embarrassment to the community and an eyesore,” she says. “That’s the place that I’m going to get torn down. For free.” She has already reached out to several construction companies.

Our car reaches the roof of the battered downtown garage. A raw wind is sweeping off Lake Michigan. Freeman-Wilson stays in the car for as long as she can, but a photographer is ready to shoot. And so she removes her coat and steps out onto the deck in a thin blazer, its bright blue picking up the color of a building at the steel mill off in the distance. “You OK?” the photographer asks. She nods and offers a wide, warm smile.

As if on cue, the sky over her city brightens. Far below, it’s recess at a charter school. Children’s squeals and laughter float up, riding the chilly wind. For a moment, Freeman-Wilson turns and looks out over Gary. To her right, the Sheraton hulks, but she looks past it, smiling, as if it’s already gone.


Photograph: Brian Sorg

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