Is Gary ready for another Mayor Hatcher?

December 10, 2010

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Ragen Hatcher
Ragen Hatcher (Photo by Michael Puente/WBEZ)

Ragen Hatcher always knew her father was someone important.

“I was kind of born into this thing where there were people at the house all the time,” Hatcher said. “There were these meetings going on at the time and the talk was about Gary.”

The talk was about Gary because Ragen’s father, Richard Hatcher, was Gary’s mayor at the time.

Richard took office in January 1968, 10 years before Ragen was born, and he held that office until 1987 when Ragen was around 10. Maybe Ragen didn’t fully grasp it during her childhood, but her dad’s career was a big deal. Richard Hatcher was Gary’s first black mayor and he won that office when more than half of Gary’s voters were white.  Richard’s notoriety kept increasing, though.

In 1972 Richard Hatcher organized the first-of-its-kind National Black Political Convention. It was held at Gary’s West Side High School (incidentally,the very same high school that Ragen graduated from in 1997).The event attracted an estimated 8,000 black elected officials and activists from around the country, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson Senior.

Richard Hatcher made an impassioned speech at the convention, including one that was later featured in PBS’ Eyes on the Prize series about the civil rights movement:  “I believe that the ‘70s will be the decade of an independent black political thrust. Its destiny will depend on us here at Gary this afternoon. How shall we respond? Will we walk in unity or disperse in a thousand different directions? Will we stand for principle or settle for a mess of potage? Will we maintain our integrity or will we succumb to the man' s temptation? Will we act like free black men or like timid, shivering chattel? Will we do what must be done? These are the questions confronting this convention and we, you and I, are the only ones that can answer them and history will be the judge. Thank you.”

Richard Hatcher’s oratorical prowess was known across the country, and that left an impression on Ragen.  “Whenever we go out of this city, he gets that respect. He is a historic figure,” Ragen Hatcher said. 

Ragen could actually make a little history of her own soon.

Right now, she’s an at-large member of the Gary City Council. Instead of making a bid for another four-year term, she wants another position in the city: mayor. If she wins May’s Democratic primary, and then the general election in November, she would be the first woman to hold that seat.and, of course, she would be the second Hatcher at the city’s helm.

Gary’s next mayor, regardless of whether it’s a Hatcher or not, will face serious problems. The next mayor will have to reduce crime, improve the city’s failing schools and find ways to attract economic investment.  Plus, the city’s nearly broke, thanks in large part to Indiana’s new property tax cap system and major reductions in U.S. Steel’s tax obligations.

Given all this, Ragen Hatcher says she doesn’t have time to think about making history.

“I’m not doing it for (history). I’m just interested in making sure that Gary gets whatever Gary should have,” Hatcher said at her office inside the Gary Community School Corporation. She serves as the district’s senior attorney. “I want people in this city are able to have a good neighborhood, a good place to live and a good place for their kids to grow up.”

However it’s not a foregone conclusion that Ragen Hatcher will actually get an electoral boost by being associated with her father. After all, not everyone views the name ‘Hatcher’ through the rosy glow of the civil rights movement—some actually associate the name with the city’s deterioration during Richard Hatcher’s 20 year tenure the city saw a mass exodus of the city’s white population.

“Out in the suburbs, Hatcher’s name has a negative connotation,” said James Lane, history professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary and co-founder of the Calumet Regional Archives at IUN. “Many blame (Hatcher) for having to loose their homes or sell their homes at bargain basement prices but that trend might have been hurried by Hatcher’s election but that trend was going on.”

Gary resident Derric Price remembers when residents starting move out following Hatcher’s election.

“It doesn’t matter who at the time when Hatcher was in, if you lose your tax base and your business move out in mass, you could have brought anybody here and you’ve got the same problem,” Price said.

Price’s family was living in Gary’s Delaney housing project when Richard Hatcher won the mayor’s seat. Until the late 1960s, that section of Gary, called Midtown, was the only area where blacks were allowed to live. It’s near Gary’s present-day downtown. “No one anticipated the harsh reaction of the white to actually just take the whole town and just abandon it wholesale,” Price said. “That’s just sort of unprecedented.”

Price believes many in the city still view Richard Hatcher in a positive light. But he could be wrong; a “Hatcher factor” might not be in play during Ragen’s bid for mayor. After all, she will have several formidable opponents.

One is another woman: Karen Freeman Wilson, a graduate of Harvard law school. Freeman Wilson has done a little of everything. She served as Gary City Court judge and was appointed as Indiana attorney general by Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon in 2000.  Another opponent, and perhaps the toughest to beat, is Rudy Clay. He’s held the office since 2006. Clay is also a veteran of Lake County, Indiana’s rough and tumble political game.

“Her name is only going to help her in the fact that she’s in opposition to the incumbent,” Price said. “Other than that, people are going to look for ideas. What are you going to do different?”

Meanwhile, the fact that another Hatcher is running pleases at least one key constituent: Richard Hatcher himself, who is now 77.
He lives in Gary and teaches law and other history classes at local colleges. He’s been away from the political spotlight but still loves talking about politics. He beams at the thought of his daughter becoming mayor.

“Without a doubt it pleases me that she is running,” Hatcher said. “I didn’t tell her you should run for mayor or anything like that. That’s a decision that she made for herself.”

Richard Hatcher knows there are people in Gary who will never vote for Ragen because of him.

“On the other hand, there are some people who would walk through fire to vote for her just because her name is Hatcher,” he said. 
Ragen Hatcher says she wants voters, supporters of her father’s or not, to take a look at what she’s done before they vote.

“Those people who may have felt that way may be able to say, ‘Yeah, you know, that is Richard Hatcher’s daughter, but on the last four years on the council she’s done a great job’,” she said.

For now no one’s entirely clear whether the Hatcher name will help or hurt Ragen’s bid for mayor. That might just suit Ragen Hatcher, anyway. She says she’d like the election to be less of a test about the Hatcher name than a test about whether she’s fit for the job.