Born in Gary, educated at Harvard, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has a mission: revitalizing a one-time economic powerhouse now best known as the birthplace of Michael Jackson.
he office of Gary, Indiana’s new mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is on the second floor of city hall, overlooking this decaying Midwestern town and its 50 square-miles of problems. On nearby blocks, the city cries for help. Weeds and bushes oppress the lawns and porches of boarded-up homes and run-down businesses. After a brief stint as Indiana’s attorney general, Freeman-Wilson took office in Gary in January, becoming Indiana’s first black female mayor and Gary’s first female mayor. Fixing this troubled city is now her responsibility, and oddly enough, her dream.
Dressed in a dark, business suit one February morning, the 5-foot-1-inch mayor wears a pin on her lapel. It’s the city seal, which proclaims Gary as the “City of the Century.” Her hair is cut short and accentuated by simple gold hoop earrings. Her brown skin, is smooth, concealing that she is 51. She smiles easily — completely unrehearsed and without pretension — disarming even political foes.
This morning, as she wraps up her second briefing of the day, Freeman-Wilson takes a seat in her office. Three desktop computer screens – all turned on – crowd her desk and near them is a fourth computer, the city-issued laptop, behind which rests a gavel, from her days as a city judge. She glances at the stack of opened letters. One catches her eye and elicits an exaggerated yawn – a letter from an attorney who claims to represent the Jacksons, Gary’s most famous family.
Members of the Jackson family have contacted the mayor’s office for permission to hold a summer event near their old house, at 2300 Jackson Street. They also want to sell products there. The problem – the mayor hasn’t spoken with anyone she feels is authorized to make the decisions. Before initiating a phone call to a man who says he is a Jackson cousin, she fiddles around with her phone, unsure how to use the speaker phone. One of the most difficult adjustments to her new job has been unlocking the secret to it. “Oh, I can’t stand this phone” she murmurs, as she places the call.
“Mr. Jackson, this is Karen Freeman-Wilson following up to our meeting from last week,” she says while leaving a voice mail message. “You know, maybe to get to the bottom of this, I would like to speak with Mrs. (Katherine) Jackson, so if you could set that up through my secretary … it would be great to do that sooner than later so that we could move forward in a way that we’re going to deal with this. Bye bye.”
Under the previous mayor — Rudy Clay’s — administration, patriarch Joe Jackson announced plans for a $300 million family museum to be built in town. The project could be a coup, guiding Michael Jackson fans and tourists to the financially strapped city. However, since the June 2010 announcement, nothing has happened.
Meanwhile, with that project in wait-and-see mode, Freeman-Wilson still must sort out the logistics of the summer event.
I ask her if it would’ve been easier if the DeBarges were from Gary. She laughs, then explains her problem with the proposed summer event.
“There’s all this controversy about who represents whom and I’m like, you know what. I’m not going to try to work out y’alls differences for you. I need to talk to one person,” Freeman-Wilson says. “You all determine who that is because this isn’t my primary initiative. I’m not opposed to it but I’m not going to spend a whole lot of energy on it because I just don’t see it. There are a lot of things on our laundry list that are much more close to being done and being realistic.”
Her voice remains even and does not reveal a shred of frustration. Switching topics, she discusses the proposed Jackson museum.
“You know, if somebody brings me a viable proposal that is financed, I’d do it. We can have it right there,” Freeman-Wilson says, pointing towards her office window where across the street the Genesis Convention Center sits. “I’d tear down the Genesis Center in a heartbeat. But …I got something in the mail yesterday or the day before and there are lines where they clearly cut and paste signatures, I’m like what is this?”
Just as she completes her thought, Freeman-Wilson looks down at her office phone and laughs. She never completely hung up the phone from the call with the Jackson family member.
“Well,” she smiles. “I don’t say anything that I wouldn’t say on the 10 o’clock news.”
What Happened to Gary?
Gary, Indiana meets at four busy interstate highways, boasts three rail lines and rests on the southern banks of one of the world’s largest bodies of water, the Great Lakes. It’s about an hour drive from Chicago, the nexus of the nation’s freight rail network.
Gary was founded in 1907 as a hub for the steel industry and became so prosperous that, in the early 20th century, it began attracting to the region African-Americans seeking jobs and economic security. Then decades ago, the steel mills began closing and in their wake, a crumbling economy emerged.
Many residents have waved goodbye to Gary – there’s been a 20-percent population drop within the past 10 years, down to 80,300 people – and those remaining face a 15.6 percent unemployment rate. The city’s pocket book isn’t much better as it wades through an estimated $10-15 million budget deficit. The 34 percent poverty rate becomes a real, tangible thing when driving past the dilapidated houses all over the city, and Broadway Blvd, once a thriving strip for businesses, is now a ghost town.
The long shadow that the Jackson family casts over Gary is emblematic of the city’s potential and problems. From one-time regional economic powerhouse, it has turned into the city perhaps best known as Michael Jackson’s hometown, hardly the basis for a sound city economy.
“There are days that I go down streets, even the street that’s around the corner from the street that I live on and think, ‘Urgh! This street really is in bad shape!’” Freeman-Wilson says. “You kind of look at things from a different perspective now that you have some responsibility to do something about it.”
Freeman-Wilson grew up in this once booming-steel town, on Arthur Street. Her father Travis Freeman supported her and his wife Delores on a steelworker’s salary. Achieving the improbable, she became a Harvard-educated lawyer, then the Indiana attorney general, and, in November 2011, the winner of Gary’s mayor’s race.
Now she is one of a growing group of pioneering young African-American mayors, some of whom are also working to turnaround troubled cities. Byron Brown of Buffalo and Cory Booker of Newark both preside over such cities. Former NBA star Kevin Johnson serves as the first black mayor of his hometown, Sacramento. Also making history is Mia Love, who became the first black female mayor in the state of Utah, when the city of Saratoga Springs, elected her. Now Love is running for Congress.
Like some of her peers, Freeman-Wilson’s challenges are enormous – yes, greater than organizing a summer block party at 2300 Jackson St. Her administration must promote business development in the city, figure out how to climb out of its budget deficit and work with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to find buyers for the vacant houses dotting the city. She must also turn around the failing public school system.
Before her inauguration, Freeman-Wilson proclaimed: “We are here to celebrate a new day in Gary, Indiana.”
“The city’s promise and potential far outweigh our greatest challenges,” she said during her recent State of the City address, adding that residents and her administration working together “can make Gary the next comeback story of the Rust Belt.”
With just over a month on the job, she is already receiving high praise for her work from some.
“I am very impressed with her,” longtime Gary resident Joseph Winfrey says. “I think she’s really dedicated and I strongly support her and encourage all other persons to support her because I think she’s got a vision for Gary.”
The Mayor’s Transportation Agenda
After telephoning the Jackson family that morning, the Freeman-Wilson and some of her aids climb into the mayor’s Tahoe Hybrid SUV. Inside, a Chicago-based R&B radio station plays faintly in the background. Images of urban blight – overgrown brush and burned-out homes, blocks and blocks of them – flash by her passenger seat window.
The mayor, her Director of Communications, Chelsea Whittington, and bodyguard are riding to the Gary/Chicago International Airport for the inaugural takeoff of Allegiant Airlines Flight 651 to Orlando, Fla. Increasing the number of flights departing from this airport is part of the mayor’s transportation plan, which is part of her broader economic development plan. Upon arriving, she gets waved into a rental car kiosk that, for the day, doubles as a remote spot for an AM talk radio station. The mayor goes on live to discuss the arrival of Allegiant. The host of the talk show – local journalist Steve Walsh — peppers her with questions:
What is the plan to boost economy of the airport?
What businesses will be around the airport?
Will this create more local jobs for Gary residents?
Freeman-Wilson answers each of the host’s questions, as well as his commentary disguised as inquiries, with lengthy explanations.
“That’s good, Steve,” Freeman-Wilson says while removing her headset after the interview. “You got all the controversy in there.”
While still smiling, she then walks over to the boarding area to greet passengers. One by one, she goes down the line shaking hands, cheerfully asking “How you doing” and “Where are you from?”
The previous administration laid the groundwork to bring Allegiant to Gary. Now Freeman-Wilson aims to expand commercial air service. She believes transportation is the multi-tiered industry Gary needs to combat unemployment and blight. Her logic: If more people begin flying out of Gary, instead of dropping their dollars at Chicago’s O’Hare or Midway airports, it could bring more tax revenue and jobs into the city.
While gradually building the city’s transportation industry, the mayor’s office also seeks to send a jolt to the rest of the city’s economy. Freeman-Wilson has added a new office to city hall, called the Department of Commerce, where potential businesses and entrepreneurs get fast-tracked into opening shop in Gary. The department ushers feasible projects through a seamless system that gets them up and running. Freeman-Wilson says a number of projects are on the table and expects to announce some by the end of June.
Who is Karen Freeman-Wilson?
The side of Karen Freeman-Wilson that glad-hands a line of strangers waiting to board a plane at the airport is a side that some who knew her before did not foresee.
“She was not a people person like I see her now. I never would have thought she would have been mayor,” says Jacqueline Staten, who coached Freeman-Wilson in high school basketball. “She was quiet. She seems to be more humorous now. I didn’t see that when she was in school.”
Staten remembers a young lady who was more worried about becoming valedictorian at Roosevelt High than running point for the girls’ varsity basketball team. The only time the quiet girl showed glimpses of her ability to command an audience was when she performed Christmas and Easter speeches at Israel C.M.E. Church, on Washington St.
The young Karen looked up to an eloquent older cousin. Inspired by this cousin, who earned valedictorian honors before departing to Brown University and becoming a lawyer, Freeman-Wilson set her sights on blossoming academically and socially.
Her next-door neighbors, who were teachers, played an active role in her life, but her greatest motivation came from her parents, who expected excellence.
“Her father was the push. Her father pushed her in everything. He wanted Karen to be the top,” Lathaniel Staten says about his old golfing buddy, Travis Freeman, who died in 1987. “Karen was always in her room studying. You go over there and the mother and the father would be outside talking to you and you go in the room and Karen would be sitting in there studying. She was a hard worker.”
After becoming valedictorian in 1978, Freeman-Wilson departed for Harvard and remained there until leaving with her law degree in 1985. On campus, she lived in the same dorm and became good friends with actor Courtney Vance and spent three years performing with the afrocentric Kuumba Singers.
Within a decade of finishing law school, Freeman-Wilson began presiding as a city judge in Gary. Her career arc then led her to an appointment as the Indiana attorney general in 2000. A year later, after a failed full-term election bid, Freeman-Wilson became the CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia. But all along, her heart never left Gary.
In 2003, Freeman-Wilson ran in the city’s Democratic primary to become the next mayor. She lost. Four years later, she lost again. Her Chief of Staff B.R. Lane, who credits Freeman-Wilson as her mentor, watched from afar in frustration.
“The hurt was not so much for her because she could have gone to anywhere in the world. It was kind of like a ‘let me help you!’ kind of deal,” Lane says. “The inability to help when you know that you can help. Maybe uniquely positioned to help. Like, nobody else in the city could do this, but they were just …”
Lane shakes her head back and forth to express how Gary voters initially reacted to Freeman-Wilson.
“That’s what I think was the frustrating thing. Not just for her, but for people like my classmates and my sister’s classmates, who would love to be home with your parents, but you can’t, because you can’t find a job in the city.”
After two unsuccessful bids, Freeman-Wilson ran again. Still confident that she could win, she decided to create a team of expert national advisors months before election day. She wanted them in place so that in the event of her victory, they could quickly start assisting her in transforming the city.
The move angered her Democratic primary opponents. They took veiled shots at her Ivy League pedigree and accused her of being presumptuous for creating the team before winning the election.
But their criticism was ineffective. In May 2011, when Freeman-Wilson beat out her eight other Democratic primary candidates, her election as mayor was all but assured in this Democratic stronghold. The victory marked a renewed sense of acceptance from her hometown.
“I’m not saying that people didn’t like me before, but some folks were just skeptical. ‘She can do this, she can do that. Why does she want to be mayor of Gary?’” Freeman-Wilson says. “There were other people who thought: ‘Yeah, she’s smart, but she’s not going to be very accessible. She’s not really like us.’”
“And so I had to really convince people during the last election, ‘Yeah, I’m just like you.’ I know how to do the Wobble. I eat chicken. You know, I’m just like everybody else. It sounds crazy but you’d be surprised!”
Like several on the new leadership team, Chief of Staff Lane grew up in Gary, left the city for brighter career advances only to return to work in the Freeman-Wilson administration.
She earned her Harvard Law degree and has worked in New York City, Atlanta and Las Vegas before joining Team Karen. Freeman-Wilson’s Director of Communications once worked in the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago before accepting her current position. Freeman-Wilson called and they came home. Pay cut and all. It’s part of the mayor’s vision to reverse the city’s ‘brain drain.’
“No way! No waaaay!” Lane exclaims when asked if she would have returned to Gary had it not been for Freeman-Wilson. “It’s a sacrifice for me to be here, it’s less pay, longer hours. But I don’t mind it. I love working with this team.”
Head Woman in Charge
Around 4 o’clock, the mayor finds herself alone in her office. She pecks away quietly on her keyboard but outside the door, three female office staffers swoon and giggle over a photo in Essence magazine. It appears that the Bachelor of the Month is a Gary native – a good-looking one at that.
Freeman-Wilson can’t help but chuckle at the thought that this might be the most estrogen ever in the Gary mayor’s office.
“Sometimes I think about that dynamic,” she says. “It’s interesting because in any other setting, even if you look at the number of speakers today (at the airport), they’re all men. So every meeting that I go to is predominantly male unless it’s a city hall meeting where we have a lot of women here.”
As the Head Woman in Charge, Freeman-Wilson has other responsibilities. She and husband Carmen Wilson will soon send their 18-year-old daughter away to college. Like her mother, Jordan grew up to two loving parents in the city of Gary. It’s the same path that led Karen Freeman-Wilson to many successes, propelled her through the defeats and guided her to this busy office. She became mayor so that one day, kids just like her can come home again.
“A lot of that has to do with ‘what is your perspective?’ My perspective is, yes, we have challenges but without question in my mind we have many more opportunities than we have challenges,” Freeman-Wilson says. “So my job, I think, is simply to work with the citizens, work with our team down here at city hall to simply realize that potential.”