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Gary mayor

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, left; Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince, center, and Gary Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, right, are the front-runners in the Gary mayoral race.

GARY — The mayor's opponents look at her eight years in office and complain of lost opportunities while she sees past successes and promise ahead.

"Something is going on that we would like to continue," Karen Freeman-Wilson said last week.

She is confronted by eight Democrats seeking to upset her bid for a third four-year term. Two have the name recognition to leave the rest of the pack behind.

Jerome A. Prince has a combined 19 years that include his election as Gary city councilman, and one of Gary's representatives on the Lake County Council. "I embrace the challenges. I embody all the potential."

LaVetta Sparks-Wade, who has served on the Gary Common Council since her election in 2015, said, "The people of Gary are my employers. We need to clean up the city, the vacant lots, cut down dead trees and clear the alleyways."

Prince said he would use the mayor's office the help revitalize the troubled Gary Community School Corp. "I envision one campus for all children, which would provide safety for children."

He would locate the new, modern campus on the city's Gleason Golf Course, adjacent to the Indiana University Northwest campus.

"Public safety, economic development and a clean city are all important. We need to establish police to be as important as they must be and equip them. We will seek assistance from outside. I have a relationship with the sheriff, state police will lend a hand," he said.

Sparks-Wade said she would reform City Hall by cutting high salaries, including the mayor's own, by eliminating the $54,000 stipend for being the city's sanitary district. "I think $88,000 is enough for being mayor."

She said she may sue the state to make the city's public schools vital again. "I'm vested in the city. My child depends on public education. The state is responsible for educating our children.

"My No. 1 priority is public safety. Our Fire and Police Departments are aging and retiring or going to other, better-paying departments. We cannot compete with East Chicago and Hammond."

She said she would sustain city spending on public safety to upgrade those departments. "My officers will be on the street. A lot of them now work behind a desk," Sparks-Wade said.

Two outsiders challenge the status quo

Prince and Sparks-Wade, both born in Gary and graduates of Gary's Lew Wallace High, said they had to break into politics without the pedigree.

After graduating high school and finishing an enlistment in the U.S. Marines, Prince became a precinct committeeman and won election to the Gary Common Council in 2000.

He soon found himself at odds with the city's administration. "I locked horns with them and opposed the (U.S. Steel Yard) baseball stadium. I polled my district, and my people didn't want it. The money could be better spent on dealing with the dilapidated houses."

He failed in an attempt to be elected county assessor in 2002, but won the office in 2014 and was re-elected last year.

Prince said his critics think he is still out of step. "Some feel it is not my time."

Sparks-Wade received a bachelor's degree in political science from Tuskegee University in Alabama. She returned home and applied for work in Gary City Hall without success.

"I didn't know anybody."

She switched gears and began working as an investigator for the state's Child Protective Services Department and later at a family counseling service and has attained a master's degree in public affairs.

She ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011 as a political independent. She has since become a Democratic precinct committeewoman, won a seat on the Gary Common Council and now has set her sights on city hall again. "I will lead from the front."

Both blame the current administration for failing to turn around the Steel City in the last eight years.

"Things have been bad for some time. The constituents never really engaged with local government. There is no confidence in the leadership," Prince said. 

"Gary lacks basic services, like snow removal and street paving. Businesses are not moving into Gary because they consider Gary unsafe," Sparks-Wade said. 

Both expressed disappointment in the city's current redevelopment program.

Prince would have the city acquire large tracts of abandoned real estate. "Clear out continuous abandoned buildings and open up an entire area for development."

"We are not moving against abandoned buildings fast and efficiently enough," Sparks-Wade said.

The mayor has unfinished business

"We need to increase the city's assessed value so we can have the money to deliver the services. We are raising it by demolition, economic development and addressing crime," Freeman-Wilson said. 

She is also a Gary native. She received a law degree in 1985 from Harvard University, served as director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and as Gary city judge from 1994 to 2000. She was named Indiana attorney general in 2000, and served a year in that office.

She ran unsuccessfully for Gary mayor in 2003 and 2007 before winning in 2011 and again in 2015.

"We have had a great year," she said about investment commitments of hundreds of millions of dollars from U.S. Steel, Alliance Steel and Amazon, in addition to small businesses.

Alliance Steel, a Bedford, Illinois-based manufacturer, plans to move operations to the city in early 2020. Amazon has opened a Gary delivery station, at 15th and Texas Street, near Interstate 65.

"Our Achilles heel is crime, which I have some direct authority over, and education, which I have some influence over," she said.

"We do need to put more police officers on the street. We are partnering with the state and federal authorities like (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and the (Drug Enforcement Administration). She also wants the Gary Police Department to take over security for Gary schools.

She said she is lobbying Purdue University to open a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Academy in Gary.

Freeman-Wilson also encourages local volunteer organizations to tutor Gary children and provide them with school uniforms, she said.

Her administration has demolished about 1,200 of the 7,000 derelict buildings left from decades of industrial downsizing and depopulation. She said about 1,500 of those remaining are worth saving.

Whoever is elected, their large-scale spending proposals must come to grips with the limits placed on city revenues by state-mandated caps on what taxes property owners must pay.

Other Democrats running in the May 7 Gary mayoral primary include: Mildred "Tinye" Alcorn, Kerry Rice Sr., Carl "Doozie" Jones, Eddie Tarver Jr., Joe L. White and James "Sirmack G.I." Edward McKnight II.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.