The city of Gary’s outgoing mayor makes no bones about how hard it has been for him to leave office this weekend.
Rudy Clay, 75, said it’s not because he’s lost his political mettle or his resolve to improve his city; instead, it was because of something he had no control over — his diagnosis of prostate cancer. During an interview with WBEZ earlier this week, Clay called this personal health obstacle the biggest disappointment of his political career.
"It was a devastating blow to me and my family," Clay said. "I really wanted to continue what we had already started here. I felt we had laid a real good foundation."
Clay passes the proverbial baton to newly-elected Karen Freeman-Wilson, but not before noting the irony of the connection between the two. Clay publicly announced his departure from the race at a press conference in April. At that same event, Clay endorsed Freeman-Wilson, one of his most prominent opponents. Clay had faced Freeman-Wilson, Indiana’s former Attorney General, before. In 2003 both had sought the mayor’s seat, only to be bested by incumbent Scott King.
Clay had dropped out of the 2003 mayoral race early, but his decades-worth of political connections eventually paid off. In 2006, King left office and, just a few weeks later, Democrats placed Clay in the mayor’s chair.
He was stunned.
“It was sort of a clarion call — it wasn’t really on my mind,” Clay said. “It was quite humbling for me to even accomplish that. I said, ‘Gee wiz, God had to be in the plan, there.’”
By the 2007 mayoral election, Clay consolidated his support and retained his office. But by then, any pretense of an easy job had evaporated. The city government was dogged by more than $70 million in debt, and the state had begun capping property tax rates, effectively ham-stringing municipal governments’ easiest and most direct means of raising revenue.
Clay and his supporters sought relief through Indiana’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board, a body meant to hear local governments’ arguments to lift such caps on a year-by-year basis.
Clay is proud that Gary is the only city to have sought and received such help from the DUAB. And though he caught flak from some home owners and business groups, he went to the board three times, making Gary’s effective property tax rates the highest in the state.
And, Clay said, he’d proudly do it again.
“I had no shame, I might add,” he said. “I’d say if there’s any board that wanted to help the city of Gary — financially or otherwise — I’d be the first in line.”
Clay said he plans to write a book about his forty-year political career and how it’s intersected with the history of Gary. Beyond that, he would only say he’s going to remain the city’s biggest booster and repeatedly make the case that every city in the region — even Chicago — should take notice of the fate of Gary, Indiana. After all, he said, no city’s assets should be wasted.
“Northwest Indiana, Lake County, Indiana, and the state of Indiana cannot be what they ought to be until Gary, Indiana, is what it ought to be,“ Clay said.