On Saturday, Gary, Indiana officially swears in its new mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson. She’s actually been on the job since last weekend, though, with a long agenda of big and small goals.
Freeman-Wilson is the first African-American woman mayor in Indiana, where she served as the state’s attorney general. She’s a Gary-raised, Harvard-educated lawyer who has worked in Washington, but feels an obligation to her hometown.
“I know about the good things and the good places. It’s irresponsible to know about the good, to know about the potential, and not do anything about it,” Freeman-Wilson says.
I talked to Freeman-Wilson for this profile in The Atlantic Cities. She also spoke with our partner station WBEZ late last year about the challenges that she’ll face, namely a high crime rate, shrinking population, and citizens who feel they face obstacles in getting what they need.
On a grander scale, she wants to increase service at Gary’s under-served airport, which sits adjacent to Interstate 90; land a major hotel for downtown and spur broader economic development activities.
Freeman-Wilson has collected a series of advisers ranging from Newark’s former business administrator, Bo Kemp, who headed her transition team, to Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., a Gary native who is now a law professor at Harvard.
Freeman-Wilson says she’s going to hunker down for the next few months to focus on her new job. But if she sees any success at all, she’s likely to become a visible player on the political scene. One of her mentors is Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, who faced a Gary-like situation when he took office a few years ago.
The new Gary mayor says her Newark counterpart told her, “You really have to understand the difference between campaigning and governing. You have to understand your constituency and communicate with them.”
At least Gary residents know she understands their city. Along with her new job, her biggest priorities are her ailing mother, who lives with her family, and helping her 17-year-old daughter Jordan choose a college (finalists on her list include Columbia University, Howard, and Emory).