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Politics Heating Up In East Chicago

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Residents in the city of East Chicago, Indiana, will head to the polls in less than a week for mayoral primaries.

Their city of 33,000, just across the state line from Chicago, is a center of industry and rigorous political fights.

This year’s Democratic primary continues that tradition, as East Chicago keeps trying to get out of the shadow of its past.

Chicago Public Radio’s Michael Puente filed this report from our Northwest Indiana Bureau.

The city of East Chicago isn’t known for its beauty. Not with huge steel mills and oil tank farms at almost every turn.

It is known for three things: heavy industry, high school basketball and corrupt politics.

Four years ago, nearly a dozen officials in the city were caught up in a sweeping federal investigation. Some went to prison for misspending millions in taxpayer money in fraudulent street and sidewalk repair work.

Bob Pastrick, the Democratic mayor at the time, wasn’t indicted. But nearly three years ago, he did lose his job to George Pabey, a former police chief and city councilman.

PABEY: “I renewed the promise I made to the people of East Chicago when I first became mayor. The promise to build in even stronger East Chicago.”

That’s Mayor Pabey giving his State of the City address recently. Pabey, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, promised lots of change: Education improvement, ethics reform and economic development for this city that’s 75 percent minority, more Latino than African American.

PABEY: “In 2006, we attracted over 25 new business in East Chicago. Mittel Steel has invested more than $10 million in our city their research and development center.)

Pabey faces three challengers in his bid for re-election in next week’s Democratic primary.

There’s a Republican primary, too, but the in these parts, Democrats rule … and have done so for decades. So Tuesday is likely the day residents will elect the person who’ll be their mayor for the next four years.

Despite Mayor Pabey’s pronouncements of success, some people say reform isn’t happening fast enough.

GUZMAN: “They hear us, but they’re not listening.”

That’s resident Antonio Guzman. Guzman says Mayor Pabey’s fallen down on promises to improve education. Standardized tests show East Chicago public school students rank near the bottom in Indiana in achievement.

Guzman says Pabey’s commitment to economic development, isn’t enough.

GUZMAN: “Everybody needs jobs, but they need an education. That’s the main thing.”

Juanita Jones is watching next week’s Democratic primary for another reason. She does credit the mayor with making upgrades to city streets. But she says ever-rising property taxes may doom East Chicago if the city doesn’t do enough to cut back on expenses.

JONES: “With the streets being done, if there’s no people that are going to be here, seems to be for not because the property taxes are getting to the ridiculous side. They say they want to improve it so the citizens of East Chicago can have a better East Chicago but we can’t afford to live here.”

Perhaps the mayor’s harshest critic is Alicia Lopez-Rodriguez, Lopez-Rodriguez was a Pabey booster who campaigned heavily when he was first running for mayor. She even worked in his administration for a while. But she says….

LOPEZ-RODRIGUEZ: “When I went to go work for the city, I was very disappointed in the way things were run. The department heads that were put into positions that have no background in the department that they’re in. They don’t even know what they’re doing.”

But Lopez-Rodriguez didn’t just quit, she’s now running against Pabey for mayor. And her message: residents of East Chicago are impatient with promises of real change.

LOPEZ-RODRIGUEZ: “We’ve had enough of this corruption. We’ve had enough of the dark shadows. We’ve had enough of the people that say they care and then really don’t. If we can clean up our school system, if we can clean up the crime, our city will have the economic development that it needs. Because no one is going to move to East Chicago when your school is ranked last and your crime is 2 ½ times the national average.”

Debbie Bolanos has lived in East Chicago nearly all her life.

BOLANOS: To overcome that reputation, I think it’s going to take a while. Because remember, that was many, many years of that.”

She owns a travel agency here and operates a dance studio that teachers folkloric Mexican dancing. Change may be slow, she says, but it’s coming.

BOLANOS: “The downtown area where my business is at, there’s been tremendous change. We’ve have several new big businesses to come into the downtown East Chicago area and there are more coming up.”

Of Pabey’s three challengers, some say Anthony Copeland has the best shot. Copeland’s a city councilman and fire department official. He says Mayor Pabey talks tall about luring businesses, but hasn’t controlled the city’s bloated payroll.

COPELAND: “You can have all the grandioso plans but the city has to be fiscally sound. The city cannot be the largest employer in the area.”

Both Copeland and fellow challenger Ed Williams say East Chicago cannot shake off its past and become a viable place to live and work unless the schools get better.

WILLIAMS: “If they would only work together in common accord, we can set the standard for excellence instead of continuing chasing all of the measures and being down at the bottom of the pack.”

George Pabey says he does have a vision for the city. But that it will take time to realize. That vision includes new retail and condos on the city’s small lakefront near the giant Mittal steel mill and adjacent East Chicago Resorts casino boat.

Millions of dollars are being pumped into the city’s parks, he says…and into infrastructure like a new water filtration plant.

PABEY: “We’re all working together. Nobody is out here trying to get rich. We just care about one thing and that’s taking care of our community and the people in our community.”

Although he’s Puertorequeño, Pabey doesn’t have a lock on the city’s Latino voters. A debate among the candidates in the Democratic primary is scheduled for this evening (Wednesday, May 2).

Pabey has said he doesn’t intend to participate.

I’m Michael Puente. Chicago Public Radio.

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