Gary Voters Refuse to Play Race Card in City Election

TRUE to Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy in black activism, Scott King has rallied a large following of African-Americans and begun shaking up the powers-that-be in Gary, Ind.

But Mr. King - a white attorney and Democratic candidate for mayor - has put a unique twist on the civil rights leader's political tradition. He is battling a political establishment that is black, not white.

Polls favor King to defeat two black rivals in Tuesday's election. If King wins, both he and Gary would have overcome a long-standing barrier in race-charged politics.

Gary, which is 85 percent black, has put a black in City Hall every year since 1967. That year, Gary and Detroit were the first major US cities to elect black chief executives.

Even in defeat, the King campaign would stand out as unusual. Although Gary is America's most segregated metropolitan area, its voters have mostly disregarded race in this campaign. The largely color-blind election comes even as O.J. Simpson's acquittal and the Million Man March have reportedly sharpened awareness of racial political differences.

Some of King's opponents have tried to whip up racial hostility against him. Gary Mayor Thomas Barnes, who is not running, has strongly endorsed independent candidate Marion Williams in part because Mr. Williams is African-American.

"This is an issue of a highly exemplary, qualified African-American candidate against an unqualified white candidate in a state that has only one African-American mayor," Mr. Barnes told a press conference last week.

In a fund-raising letter last month, Barnes noted that in the past several years whites have unseated black mayors in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. "We have the ability to stop this shameful episode and trend with the upcoming mayoral election in Gary," he wrote.

But racial agitation has apparently fizzled. An Oct. 22 poll by the Hammond Times shows King commanding 40 percent of the vote compared with 27 percent for Williams.

King calls the inflammatory tactics "cheap and irresponsible." He says Barnes is trying to distract voters from the core issue: "Power - not race - is the key question in this campaign."

"Gary is making a transition not from black to white leadership but from an old-time, buddy patronage network to modern and efficient government," says King.

Barnes replies by saying that King is relying on northwest Indiana's powerful Democratic party organization, the epitome of "cronyism." Yet Barnes has won two mayoral terms since 1988 by mobilizing the same political machine.

"The promise by King that he will sweep City Hall clean really appeals to people,'' says Connie Mack-Ward, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Open Housing Center in Gary.

Outside of City Hall, King says his plan for economic renewal would revive Broadway, the city's commercial spine, which is lined by tumbledown department stores and boarded-up shops.

King has blunted racial attacks by reminding voters in campaign photographs that he has an African-American wife. Primarily, though, King has built a lead by aggressively promoting a results-oriented platform.

He won 129 of 148 precincts in the Democratic primary by emphasizing Gary's need to focus on workaday details like sound financial management. Early on, he detailed ways to turn Gary around.

King wants to bolster the police force, which battles the highest per-capita rates of murder and rape among US cities. He pledges to improve schools, repave roads, clean up city parks, restore regular trash collection, and work to reduce an 11.7 percent unemployment rate.

Should King win, he could confront racial barriers in dealings with business executives and officials outside Gary who are cool toward the predominantly black city.

The Gary metropolitan area, encompassing Lake and Porter Counties in northwest Indiana, is the most segregated urban area in America. It is the only one among the nation's 15 most segregated areas where black/white divisions in housing grew in the 1980s, according Census Bureau figures.

But when it comes to politics in Gary, race apparently no longer commands center stage.

"My trash isn't collected and there's been a giant pothole outside my door for two years," says Gary resident Stephanie Gilbert. "Do you think I care about the color of the mayor's skin?"

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