Jerry Davich: Gary’s the only place for Clay
JERRY DAVICH firstname.lastname@example.org December 25, 2011 10:18PM
Mayor Rudy Clay smiles as he hands out turkeys at City Hall in Gary, Ind. Friday December 23, 2011. Mayor Rudy Clay handed out 300 turkeys to city employees and residents. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 27, 2012 8:05AM
Gary Mayor Rudy Clay took a long sip from his hot tea and chuckled to himself.
“My wife has supported me 1,000 percent through the years, but there’s no way I’m running for public office again,” he told me. “She tells me don’t even bring it to me. Be still. Be still!”
It’s been almost two years since I’ve met face to face with Clay, whose last day in office is later this week. I decided to meet with him again to catch up on a few things, such as his past, his future, and his legacy.
We met at my favorite pizza joint in the city, Flamingo Pizza, and sat in the back during a slow lunch hour. The 76-year-old Clay was lively, loose-lipped and light-hearted, as a police officer who serves as his driver sat at a nearby table.
He acted nothing like his more-serious public image during city press conferences and media photo ops. Several times he giggled like a school boy.
Back in April, when he shocked almost everyone with the announcement of suspending his re-election bid, I immediately contacted him. (On a side note, I want to publicly thank Clay’s extremely pleasant executive assistant, Thalia Moore, who always arranges my meetings with him.)
“I feel that God has already healed me, but I have to go through the process,” Clay told me then, referring to his battle with cancer.
When I met with Clay a couple years back, I wrote about his skewed public image, which causes him damage to Gary outsiders. At times, it appears as if he’s a parody of himself, a caricature of his worst reflection.
Image is everything. Perception is reality. Same goes for his city, at least to outsiders.
Clay agreed with me wholeheartedly when we met last week, but I am convinced that he simply sees a different Gary, Indiana, than most everyone else. When he finally took office as mayor in 2006, it was the highlight of his long political career.
Why, I asked, has he stayed in Gary his entire life, and not left for greener pastures?
“It’s for my love for the people of Gary,” he replied quickly.
I abruptly stopped eating my soup and rolled my eyes.
“It’s true, it’s true,” he insisted.
I asked about his youth, being raised in the Steel City, and he proudly told me about his two aunties who raised him. (He met his father only twice in his life.) His aunties demanded he attend church every Sunday, and Sunday school, too, and he hasn’t let them down seven decades later.
In fact, if more kids attended church these days, Gary (and the country) would be a better place, he said.
“That’s what saved my life,” he said seriously. “If it’s not for the churches and pastors in this city, our crime would be through the roof. I congratulate them for their efforts.”
The subject came up of young black kids walking around with their pants hanging low, exposing their underwear and ignorance.
“If that happened when I was a teen, they would take those boys to jail,” he said.
“Or a mental institution,” he added with a laugh.
Clay, a 1953 Roosevelt High School graduate who attended Indiana University in Bloomington for a year or so, first ran for public office in 1971, as a city councilman. But he lost because another candidate on the ballot had the same last name, he said.
“Ralph Clay,” he noted with a shrug. “Nobody saw him from that day to this day. He took my votes.”
Clay said he has never run unopposed in any election, and no other public official in the region, or the state, has been elected to more public offices than him.
“It’s true, we looked it up,” he said proudly.
Why, I asked, do some candidates run for public office if they know they can’t win the election? Especially in Gary, a Democratic stronghold for such a long time.
“It makes no sense, but they think they can win,” he replied.
That’s delusional, I said.
“Thank you,” he said with a smile.
As a younger man, he was active in the civil rights movement, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He sported MLK cufflinks on the day we met, to go with his “CLAY” embroidered shirt sleeves and his sharp-looking suit.
I tried to sway him away from his usual song and dance about the city and its finances, but he couldn’t help himself from his long-time habits.
“We’re digging out of financial quicksand,” he said theatrically. “But since I got into office, $1.2 billion has been invested in the city’s tax base from private developers and government entities. This fact has got lost in the perception of our city.” The city has also paid more than a quarter of a million dollars on new trash cans alone, to counter a consistent complaint from residents, he noted.
Wrestling with city finances is like wrestling with an octopus and its many tentacles, he reasoned. When one tentacle is held down, another one grabs you.
“But let me tell you, we’ll wrestle with the octopus until the octopus gets tired,” he joked.
Clay calls the passing of his mayoral baton to Gary Mayor-elect Karen Freeman-Wilson as a “very smooth transition,” and he is not second guessing any of her decisions.
“We go to the same church, you know,” he added.
On a personal level, he’s happy the NBA is back, he enjoys visiting casino boats — for the buffets — and he loves fruit cocktail with chunky pineapples. He suggests trying it with a few shredded wheats on top.
“But don’t let ‘em get soggy,” he warned.
After he leaves office, he wants to finish writing a book in progress, as well as travel and vacation more with his wife.
“I haven’t been outside the city for more than three days straight in the past decade,” he said.
Regardless of where he goes, he will always return to Gary, where he plans to retire until death do him part.
“Time is so fleeting,” he said wistfully, leaning back in his chair.
Listen to Jerry’s new radio show “Casual Fridays” on Fridays
at noon on WLPR 89.1-FM or