INDIANAPOLIS – Evan Bayh has a problem.
The $10 Million Man thought he could do an end around Hoosier voters, evade a primary election, grab a U.S. Senate nomination in July for a seat he refused to defend in 2010, then traipse back to Washington where he could sleep in his own bed every night. Instead, he is in a pure dog fight with Republican Todd Young, who has already knocked off two congressmen (former Rep. Mike Sodrel in the 2010 Republican primary, then Rep. Baron Hill that November).
This Senate race, which is already nearing the $25 million mark in money, is playing out in perhaps the most unlikely place in the state: East Chicago. As Donald Trump might put it, Steeltown has become “Importantville.”
The reason is that last May, the EPA informed about 1,100 residents in the West Calumet Housing Complex that they and their 700 children were living on land severely contaminated by lead and arsenic left behind by a now defunct USS Lead factory. It should have been no secret. The Associated Press reported that in 1985, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management found elevated lead levels in the soil and the Indiana Department of Health found high levels of lead in the blood of children. A 2008 EPA memo described the tract as "an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health, welfare and the environment."
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland was forced to make a fateful decision: Declare West Calumet uninhabitable. This, of course, sent a thousand Hoosiers scrambling. "It's mind-boggling. You have so many people who could have and should have done something," Democratic State Sen. Lonnie Randolph who's represented the city since 2008, told the AP. "The bottom line is somebody just didn't care."
Gov. Mike Pence is on his excellent vice presidential adventure and his administration has essentially checked out, though spokesman Matt Lloyd said the state has sent $100,000 in for “health and housing.” The governor hasn’t bothered to come to East Chicago (though he has visited flood victims in Iowa and Louisiana, tornado victims in Kokomo and is campaigning in Fort Wayne today), perhaps because this crisis collides with a key Pence talking point that industry is over regulated by the federal government. Months after the crisis surfaced, Pence did have a phone conversation with U.S. Housing and Urban Development Sec. Julián Castro, then sent him a letter asking questions on Sept. 20 about the HUD response.
This lack of priority had the mayor and senator reaching out to anyone who might help.
Enter Rep. Young, who sits on the influential House Ways & Means Committee. Earlier this week, he introduced legislation to address the affordable housing shortage in East Chicago by targeting additional low-income housing tax credits to the impacted area. “Entire lives are being uprooted by this disaster,” said Young. “It is bad enough having families forced from their homes, but it is a tragedy to learn so many will end up leaving the community altogether in search of an affordable place to live. Hundreds of children are implicated here, and as such, there is more we should be doing at all levels of government to find a workable solution. Whether it be to extended family, schools, churches, or neighbors, many of these families have deep ties to East Chicago. Making sure they have the ability to return to their community is an important prospect.”
“Too many of the Hoosiers I represent from the West Calumet Housing Complex will be forced to leave the area because of a lack of affordable housing,” said Sen. Randolph. “Congressman Young and I met earlier this month to discuss the federal government’s response and I am pleased those conversations gave rise to this legislation. It will provide housing for so many displaced residents here in East Chicago, and I would strongly encourage the Indiana delegation to join Todd and support this important bill.”
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, told the Times he seeks to “work with all stakeholders.”
And the Bayh campaign’s response? Peter Luster, Bayh’s political director, blasted Young’s proposal as “politically expedient” and said it “reeks of cynicism and opportunism. Let’s be clear: East Chicago is our Flint and Todd Young is exploiting people that need help to try and get ahead.”
It was an odd response from a candidate who is basing his comeback on the notion of seeking bipartisan cooperation.
Lake County is Bayh Country and has been since the early 1960s when Birch Bayh was first elected to the Senate. With the Sept. 6-8 WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana Poll showing Bayh leading Young by just 44-40 percent, he will need a heavy turnout in Lake to offset Young’s strength in places like the doughnut counties around Indianapolis. The poll captured this fascinating data point: Bayh was getting only 11 percent support among Republicans. Back in the days when he was winning landslide elections, Bayh’s slice of the GOP vote was firmly in the 20th percentile.
So there’s some irony that Democrats facing a huge problem in a city with a motto “Progredemur” (“We progress”), would find a willing partner in a Republican from Bloomington.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.