Former Gary mayor Rudy Clay dead at 77
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/302-0949 June 4, 2013 1:19PM
Gary Mayor Rudy Clay smiles as Karen Freeman-Wilson makes her victory speech during her election party at the Genesis Center in Gary, Ind. Tuesday Nov. 8, 2011. | Sun-Times Files
Clay’s political career
1972: elected state senator
1978: elected to Lake County Council
1984: elected Lake County recorder
1986: elected to Lake County Board of Commissioners
2005: elected chairman of Lake County Democratic Party
2006: elected mayor by Gary precinct committeemen
2007: elected mayor
2011: announced he would not seek re-election
Updated: July 6, 2013 6:28AM
GARY — Former Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, a consummate Lake County politician who held several elected offices, died at home Tuesday from cancer at age 77.
Funeral arrangements have not been made, but wife Christine Clay said the funeral will be at the Genesis Convention Center, per her husband’s wish.
News of Clay’s death first surfaced on Facebook early Tuesday afternoon. Mrs. Clay said she and son Rudy Clay Jr. were at his side when he died about 12:15 p.m.
“The cancer, he fought that for a long time. It just kind of caught up. He was always positive and always thinking of other people. That was Rudy Clay,” said Christine Clay, his wife of 55 years. She recalled the give-away program Clay started right after Christmas called “Toys for Children Santa Forgot.”
In a public career that spanned 40 years, Clay’s been a state senator, county councilman, county recorder, county commissioner and was elected Lake County’s first black Democratic Party chairman.
“He’s probably the most adroit politician we’ve ever had,” said Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen Jr.
Allen said Clay was his role model. “I took a special interest in his campaign methods and strategies. He was a mentor to me in that respect.”
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson won the 2011 mayoral primary after Clay announced he suspended his campaign for re-election because of prostate cancer.
“He was an icon in the community whose political service spanned decades. His heart for the citizens of Gary, Indiana will be remembered and cherished for years to come,” Freeman-Wilson said in a statement.
In 2011, when he told reporters he had suspended his campaign, Clay listed all the political offices he’d held. But none mattered more than mayor of Gary.
“I think when the history books are written, my name will be in there for Gary, Indiana,” Clay said. “It may not be there for my time as a state senator, for my time as a county councilman, for my time as (Lake County’s) first African-American recorder and a county commissioner, but (my name is) gonna be there as mayor of this city.”
Following the surprise resignation of Mayor Scott King in 2006, Clay wooed precinct leaders and ousted short-term interim Mayor Dozier Allen by two votes.
His mayoral reign lasted just five years but was never dull. Clay, who bore trademark mutton chops and wore impeccable suits and ties, cut a familiar figure in Northwest Indiana.
The affable Clay became known for his boundless energy and fondness for grandiose plans to put Gary on the map. Early in 2006, Clay said he wanted to deliver commuters to Chicago from Gary via a hovercraft floating over Lake Michigan. It would take 15 minutes and cost $7. The plan tanked.
Soon after he took office, Clay began driving around the city in a leased Hummer H3, drawing attention from critics who blasted the mayor for his extravagance while the city struggled with a $36 million budget deficit.
Clay ditched the Hummer in 2011 as he prepared to run for re-election.
Following the 2009 death of Gary native son Michael Jackson, Clay began huddling with family patriarch Joe Jackson and plans soon surfaced for a Jackson family museum and performing arts center at Gleason Park. Those plans sputtered.
Clay also aligned himself with Chicago developers who vowed to renovate the aging, crumbling and long-vacant Sheraton Hotel on Broadway next to City Hall.
As he kicked off his 2007 mayoral campaign, Clay touted the proposed $70 million downtown plaza and condominium project as the cornerstone of the city’s revival. Clay won election but the economy took a dive and the development never materialized.
What didn’t disappear were the city’s nagging financial woes that predated Clay’s arrival in City Hall.
Clay became a familiar figure in Indianapolis as Gary became the lone city to seek relief from state-imposed property tax caps three times. Clay gained the relief but had to follow a state-prescribed diet of layoffs, furloughs and diminished services. Clay even earned praise from former Gov. Mitch Daniels for cutting 24 percent out of the city’s budget.
Clay was born in Alabama, but came to Gary to live with an aunt when he was 18 months old after his mother died. He graduated from Roosevelt High School, a fact he often bragged about. He attended Indiana University and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1959 and served for two years.
Upon his return, he worked for two insurance agencies, then established his own insurance business.
In the 1960s, Clay marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. at Gage Park in Chicago. Later, as a state senator, Clay sponsored legislation that created a state holiday for King.
While serving in the General Assembly, Clay attacked discriminatory hiring practices by the Indiana State Police. Clay also introduced legislation designed to compensate innocent victims of crime.
In 1973, then Gov. Otis Bowen sent Clay to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City to negotiate the release of three guards being held hostage.
Clay was no stranger to violence in his personal life.
His brother, David Clay, was shot and killed in a robbery at a Gary bar in 1976.
After his election as county commissioner in 1986, Clay was shot as he walked toward his home in Gary. No one has ever been charged.
On his final day as mayor last January, Clay proudly pointed to his framed likeness on the “wall of mayors” above a marble staircase at City Hall.
Clay ordered the photograph off the Internet and paid for it himself, even though his press secretary wanted a more expensive oil painting like the others. “The taxpayers won’t have to pay another penny for it,” he said.
That day Clay appeared a little downbeat for such as enthusiastic politician. As he talked about writing a book or opening a business, he still managed to wedge in a final familiar refrain.
“It’s winding down now, but then I’ll take off and soar like an eagle.”