John Gregg is from the far-southern Indiana city of Sandborn.
The Democratic candidate for governor of Indiana grew up on a farm and speaks with a southern drawl.
Sandborn is a far cry from East Chicago, one of the most urban and industrial cities in the Midwest. East Chicago is a minority-majority city, with Latinos making up more than half of its 30,000 residents, with African-Americans at 42 percent.
But Gregg couldn’t have been on more friendlier turf Wednesday. East Chicago, like most of Northwest Indiana, is a Democratic bastion.
Gregg visited the city’s First Baptist Church, located across the street from the West Calumet Housing Project, where the 1,200 residents are being forced to move because of contaminated lead.
“I’m here today because I care. I’m here today because I want to listen and I want to learn,” Gregg told a small group gathered at the First Baptist Church in East Chicago.
The move is causing major hardship for the residents — and anxiety since dozens of children have been tested for high levels of lead.
Pastor Tavis Grant invited Gregg to the city to get a first hand look at the crisis.
“We need legislators to be active and aggressive in making sure this community gets what it needs, when it needs it and treat us like we are part of this state,” Grant said.
Grant has taken aim at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for not visiting the city, even though the Republican candidate for vice president has toured parts of flooded Louisiana with Donald Trump. Pence even visited areas of Indiana hit hard by a tornado last week.
Pence’s replacement on the November ballot, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, also has not visited. But Gregg himself did not criticize Pence or Holcomb for not visiting the city.
“This is about problems, this isn’t about politics. This is about problems. I’m up here to discuss policy and problems. Not politics,” Gregg told WBEZ. “This is life. This is a sad thing of life. That’s what it’s about. I don’t want to drag this into a political issue.”
West Calumet residents are being moved to hotels paid for by the EPA so that crews can clean their units of any potential lead contamination. The residents will move back in and eventually be relocated permanently.
The EPA has also put down new mulch in some areas to keep the contaminated soil at bay. They urged children not play outside but many were during Gregg’s visit during a warm late summer day.
West Calumet was built in the early 1970s over land that was once used by a refinery called Anaconda. The company used lead in its products. A school was even built in the area to serve the housing project and nearby neighborhoods.
Concerns about lead in the area date back to the 1980s. In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began testing soil in the complex and in nearby residential areas.
But the results for lead came back extremely high in some areas two years ago. Those results weren’t shared with East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland until late May.
That’s when Copeland made the decision to force the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate the residents because of health concerns.
This move upset the EPA, which was ready to implement remediation of the area under a consent decree reached two years ago with the state of Indiana and two companies responsible for the contamination, DuPont and BP as part of a superfund site.
The relocation of 366 families to alternative housing hasn’t come without major headaches for all involved.
Residents have yet to receive vouchers to pay for rent and security deposits. And large families are finding it difficult to find housing that’s big enough. Some elderly residents are reluctant to leave.
Rev. Grant says the process is taxing the city’s resources.
“Trying to relocate more than 300 families, and treat them and test them is more than the infrastructure we currently have in the city,” Grant said.
Meanwhile, the East Chicago Housing Authority is facing a discrimination complaint for not following federal guidelines in relocating the residents. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty in Chicago filed a complaint alleging the housing authority is not following certain guidelines in relocating residents.
WBEZ’s Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.