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Barack Obama becomes hot topic at IU Northwest forum celebrating 40th anniversary of historic Gary, Ind. election

Panel featuring former Gary mayor Richard Hatcher and the son of late Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes discusses Democratic race for president

In another example of the nation’s rising tide of interest in this year’s presidential race, a symposium at Indiana University Northwest celebrating the 40th anniversary of Richard G. Hatcher’s election as Gary mayor took an impromptu turn toward the political present on Friday, when Hatcher and several other panel members weighed in on the Democratic nomination race between U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Hatcher, the guest of honor at the event co-sponsored by the university and the Gary Cultural and Historical Society, didn’t seem to mind.

“I tell my students to watch what is happening in the country right now,” Hatcher, an adjunct faculty member at IU Northwest, said to a group of 40 or so Gary Roosevelt High School students and dozens of others who attended the symposium. “It may not seem significant now, but years later you will look back on this and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what was going on. A sea change was taking place.’ I truly believe that America is ready to put a lot of the problems we’ve had between the races behind it and to move forward as an equal, fair and just nation.”

Hatcher joined other figures from his historic 1967 race for mayor in a forum intended to commemorate that watershed political event. Other participants included: Cordell Stokes, son of late Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes, who was elected shortly before Hatcher won in Gary; Lennie Dreyfus, Hatcher’s campaign manager and a member of the so-called “Miller Mafia,” a small group of white residents who bucked significant white opposition to Hatcher and campaigned on his behalf; Judge Richard F. Walsh, who worked as U.S. deputy marshal overseeing the 1967 election; Dena Neal, daughter of Hatcher’s deputy mayor, James Holland; and East Chicago, Ind. attorney Lonnie Randolph, who was in high school when Hatcher first was elected.

It was Randolph who made the most impassioned argument on behalf of the popular Obama, saying that his election as president would complete a movement that began, in some ways, with the election of Hatcher and Stokes as the first two black mayors of major American cities. To illustrate his point, Randolph displayed a copy of Ebony magazine that featured a photo of Obama on its cover and another photo of a victorious Hatcher on an inside page.

Yet, Randolph said, the key to Obama’s popularity is not his race but his leadership ability and his promise of change.

“It’s not that Hillary Clinton is not competent. She is a qualified presidential candidate,” Randolph said. “But it’s about change. The people want change, and right now that change is leaning toward Barack Obama.”

Not everyone at the symposium was riding the Obama bandwagon. Stokes declared himself a Clinton supporter, saying that the New York senator and former first lady had promised to help bolster the state Democratic Party’s organization in Nevada, where he is politically active.

Stokes also cited Clinton’s plan for universal healthcare as impetus for his support. He encouraged the students present to look beyond gender or race when deciding which candidate to support in this or any election.

“Make sure the person you do support is someone who is in a position to push forward the things that are important to you,” he said.

Still, Stokes agreed that the senator from Illinois had invigorated the political landscape.

“He has brought the youth out,” he said. “We have found a catalyst … who has been able to reach into the hearts and minds of youth of all colors and races and get them involved in the political process.”

The greater challenge, Stokes added, would be to prevent that enthusiasm from turning into disinterest or disillusionment should Obama ultimately fail to win the presidency. But Randolph insisted that, regardless of the outcome, the relative political newcomer has already achieved an important victory for the country.

“Win or lose, he’s already won,” Randolph said. “We’re already motivated.”

Neal, who attends Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama also attends, said the 2008 campaign has even captivated her young grandson.

“My 9-year-old grandson came to me and said, ‘Well, John Edwards may win South Carolina, because that’s his hometown.’ Here is a 9-year-old who is watching the elections on television,” she said.

Hatcher said the sweeping national interest in this year’s election reminds him of the country’s mindset back when he ran for office. In 1967, he said, many people believed that, with enough hard work and optimism, anything was possible. The high level of youth interest in Obama, and in politics generally, is reason to hope that such ideas are back in vogue, he said.

“I do think that what we are seeing at the national level really represents that kind of revival,” Hatcher said.

So prevalent was talk of the contest between Clinton and Obama that, at one point, Roosevelt history teacher Lawrence Robertson sought to redirect the discussion back toward the forum’s central theme: the election, 40 years ago, of the first two African-Americans to hold mayoral office in major American cities.

“Barack Obama is standing on the shoulders of Richard Hatcher and Carl Stokes,” he said. “There would be no Barack Obama without Richard Hatcher and Carl Stokes.”



Media Contact:

Christopher Sheid

Michelle Searer

By Christopher Sheid/IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications
Former Gary mayor Richard Hatcher (left) and Cordell Stokes, son of late Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes, discuss the significance of the 1967 election that saw Hatcher and the elder Stokes become the first African-American mayors of major American cities.
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