Former East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick with Gov. Frank O'Bannon at French Lick in August 2003. Pastrick died at age 88 last Friday. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
Former East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick with Gov. Frank O'Bannon at French Lick in August 2003. Pastrick died at age 88 last Friday. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
WASHINGTON – The first time I stepped into one of Bob Pastrick’s campaign headquarters in March 1995, I knew this was a scene out of a movie waiting to be made.  Behind a desk occupied by a gruff, extremely overweight campaign worker lay a pile of merchandize – color TVs, VCR’s, microwaves, and more. When he finally put down the telephone he had been chewing I asked, “What’s this stuff for?”  “Door prizes,” he spit back.

Politics in East Chicago in the 1990’s was rough and tumble and old school, a throw-back.  I thought it should be documented in some way and when one of Pastrick’s sons asked me if I knew anyone who might write a book about his father, I suggested a documentary film.

This was early 1999 as Pastrick was launching another of his “last” campaigns against Stephen “Bob” Stiglich, former Lake County sheriff and then Democratic county chairman. It would be the final face-off of three between them, bare-knuckled political battles that were like campaign versions of the Ali-Frazier fights.

In fact, Pastrick wanted to hang it up in 1995, but he could not allow himself to hand over the city hall keys to Stiglich, a man he once hired as his police chief, but who had turned against him. Had Pastrick walked away in the mid-1990’s, he would have avoided the tag of corruption that taints his legacy.

Bob Pastrick, who died Friday two weeks shy of his 89th birthday, was a dynamic, caring, and complex political figure. Superficially, he might be described as a smaller scale version of the legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Both simultaneously held the mayoral and Democratic county chairman posts that allowed them to preside over well-oiled patronage-driven political machines. Both cared deeply about their respective cities, and aggressively sought millions of dollars to improve them. Daley would personally meet with every individual hired by the city so that the new worker understood he/she owed the job and loyalty to Daley, as did Pastrick. Neither cared about enriching themselves, but both turned a blind eye to loyal aides and supporters who did.

Yet, Pastrick strongly believed in progressive ideals. He idolized the Kennedys and hosted Jack Kennedy on his first visit to Indiana in the run-up to the 1960 presidential campaign. Pastrick put his progressive philosophy to work as mayor. He hired African Americans and Latinos to top administration jobs (the first time in East Chicago history) putting an end to a period of intense racial tension in Lake County politics, implemented policies designed to improve the lives of the city’s historically neglected low-income community, and built award-winning libraries.

Pastrick possessed both a shrewd political mind and a common touch. He knew many of the city residents by name and regularly dropped in on them at community centers and at service organization events. His aides were charged with briefing him regularly so that he could congratulate constituents personally on the birth of a grandchild or console them if there had been a recent personal loss. He would attend the funerals of not just prominent people, but of ordinary city residents, for example, attending the funeral of Norma Jean Moore, a welfare mother from East Chicago and president of the Indiana Welfare Rights Organization.

Like all of the mayors until the current one, Anthony Copeland, Robert Pastrick hailed from the treacherous Harbor side of East Chicago. His early political base stemmed from his marriage to a prominent Indiana Harbor Morrissey family’s daughter, Ruth Ann Plesniak. He first came to political attention during the Walter Jeorse mayoral administration in the 1950’s.

Pastrick was first elected to the city council in 1954. Later, he became a maverick in the early 1960s and aligned himself with former mayor Frank Migas’s son-in-law, Dr. John B. Nicosi, who unseated Jeorse after 12 years of reign. Pastrick served as Nicosi’s city controller from 1964-1971 before ganging up with city striebro, Jay Given and Jay’s law partner, Tom Cappas, to seize power.

Pastrick caught the attention of the state Democratic Party as a result of his aggressive approach in building the Indiana Young Democrats when he served as state president in the 1950’s. He was rewarded with the secretary of state nomination in 1960. Pastrick later told me that having two Catholics on the ticket, John F. Kennedy and himself, was a tough sell to many voters in the Hoosier state who at that time were prejudiced toward Catholics.

Unfortunately, Pastrick’s years as mayor, beginning with his election in 1971, coincided with the decline of the steel industry and manufacturing in the U.S. generally. By the 1970’s, foreign steel became a fact of life. Revenue from personal property taxes and the steel industry took a dive. East Chicago saw its population cut in half as residents fled to the suburbs. As steel jobs evaporated, the city became the top employer for those who remained.

An ugly pall was cast over East Chicago’s politics with the murder of Pastrick’s former city attorney and political fixer, Jay Given, on the night of May 15, 1981. Given was shot to death in the vestibule of the Elks Building within 30 feet of 400 people gathered for a political fundraiser. John Cardon, the main suspect, was an East Chicago cop and his friends on the force swept the area for evidence. Some claimed the murder was “political.” The murder remains “unsolved.”

In the early 1990’s, Indiana elected to allow riverboat gambling to inject badly needed revenue into the economies of struggling communities. A company owned by Cappas and former Democratic State Chair Mike Pannos, a close friend of one of Pastrick’s sons, won a no-bid contract to run the East Chicago casino.

Some were outraged by the favoritism, and the fallout almost cost Pastrick the election in 1995. Pastrick was losing his grip over the machine. After the election, he would step down as Democratic county chair, replaced by Stiglich.

Unexplained things happened in East Chicago politics that no one seemed to question. Like the time in 1995 when Stiglich’s direct mail pieces ended up at the bottom of the Calumet River. So when the city embarked on a multi-million dollar public works campaign funded by casino revenues to replace sidewalks in the early spring of 1999 just before the Democratic primary election, few questioned the project. At least they were getting new sidewalks, some remarked. Well, not everyone. Those houses with a Stiglich yard sign were passed over. And, in some cases, the work extended to driveways, patios, and parking lots.

The “sidewalks for votes” scandal marked the beginning of the end for Pastrick. He would narrowly defeat another former police chief, George Pabey, in 2003. But Pabey contested the results, arguing rampant voter fraud in absentee ballot voting. The Indiana Supreme Court threw out the results and Pastrick lost the new election. Meanwhile, six of Pastrick’s supporters, “the Sidewalk Six,” were convicted on corruption. Indiana won a $108 million judgment against Pastrick and his allies for funds allegedly misspent on the sidewalk project. It was a sad conclusion to a remarkable political career.

Bob Pastrick was known and respected nationally as one of the country’s top mayors. His stylish dress, charm, and dashing approach to politics earned him the nickname “Hollywood Bob,” a moniker he never liked. For all the controversy, Pastrick was always a gentleman. He loved politics and the people in politics, and Democratic politicos loved him. Ann Greenfield of Posey County, who served with Pastrick on the Democratic National Committee, said “He had that ability, as most successful pols do, to make each person he talked to feel important.”

Indiana politics won’t see the likes of Bob Pastrick again.

Chris Sautter directed and produced a documentary film about Robert Pastrick titled “The King of Steeltown: Hardball Politics in the Heartland.” The film won “Best Political Documentary” at the New York International Independent Film Festival in 2001. Sautter acknowledges Lake County attorney Rich Miller, an East Chicago native, who provided detail for this piece related to Pastrick’s earlier years.