He was the best.

No politician in my time did it better than Robert A. Pastrick.

He had a knack for turning adversaries into friends. I believe I even saw him change some Republicans into Democrats.

Bob Pastrick could schmooze with the best of them. Better than most.

As one of the longest serving mayors in America, Bob could pick up the phone and talk to virtually anyone, including presidents.

I suspect there was a good deal of symbolism in that he was buried four days prior to a presidential election. My guess is that he sensed the end was near and voted absentee.

Bob lived for elections. Those running for office locally coveted his endorsement, especially since he was Lake County Democratic chairman almost as long as he was mayor.

When he was chairman, precinct committeemen worked for the party, not just for themselves.

If committeemen didn’t go door-to-door with the Democratic message, they heard about it from the chairman.

And after a session behind the barn, that committeeman generally remembered where he stood in Lake County politics.

In the eyes of some, he walked on water. Others said that’s only because he couldn’t swim.

Regardless, he had the ability to pick himself up after his critics dragged him through real or imaginary political scandals. He came through them all pretty much unscathed.

One of those was the sidewalk affair prior to the 1999 mayoral primary. Critics said the project constituted the misuse of casino tax revenue. To Pastrick and his supporters, it was a beautification project that happened to coincide with an election.

Seven East Chicago city officials were convicted of federal felonies in the sidewalks scandal. Pastrick wasn't charged in the criminal indictments. However, the former mayor was named in a related civil racketeering lawsuit in federal court — one he lost.

A federal judge branded Pastrick’s administration as corrupt and ordered Pastrick and former political allies to pay $108 million in damages in the 2011 civil lawsuit.

The sidewalks were prominent in the “King of Steel Town” documentary on the 1999 mayoral primary between Pastrick and Stephen R. Stiglich, who once served as Bob’s police chief.

It was explained the sidewalks ran down a city block, although they bypassed the house with a Stiglich sign in the yard. That’s how politics worked in Indiana Harbor. And, opponents shook hands after the votes were counted.

Even more than politics, Pastrick loved East Chicago. He worked tirelessly to keep the city alive as jobs in the steel industry were drying up.

Ultimately, the Indiana Harbor and East Chicago business districts became ghost towns as the ethnic founders of the city fled south because of increasing crime.

And, the merger of East Chicago Washington and East Chicago Roosevelt high schools into East Chicago Central seemed to take some of the spirit out of the city.

It was the “King of Steel Town” that shadowed Bob’s last hurrah. And, it signaled the beginning of the end for Bob Stiglich.

It was somewhat of a love-hate relationship between Pastrick and Stiglich.

Sometime after Stiglich had died in 2005, I asked Pastrick if he missed the guy everyone call Stig.

“I pray for him,” is all he said.

I suspect there are a lot of former and present East Chicagoans praying for Bob Pastrick today.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjamescolumns@gmail.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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