MERRILLVILLE – Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker plans to retire sometime this spring. Rucker, a Gary native, and I met some 37 years ago when he was on the campaign trail. He was bright, good looking and it seemed like his future was going to be bright.
        
But, it didn’t start out too well. Rucker decided to run for judge, Lake Superior Court, County Division, in 1980. I guess they called them small claims court judges back then. His opponent in the Democratic primary was East Chicago native Steven Bielak, who, like Rucker, was an upcoming judicial and political star. It was quite a primary, and in true Lake County tradition, the mud flew freely.
    
Bielak’s handlers insisted on newspaper ads depicting the two candidates, and many of the ads contained photographs of the two candidates. And, because Bielak was white and Rucker was black, it became a very racist campaign. And the unbecoming photo of Rucker seemed to have come from a police lineup.
    
At the time, black candidates didn’t win primary elections for countywide offices in Lake County. And, Rucker didn’t become the exception. Bielak trounced the man who seemed to have a leg up in terms of qualifications.
    
Rucker’s loss – and the fact that blacks didn’t hold countywide offices at the time – angered Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, who with Carl Stokes in Cleveland, became the first black mayors of major U.S. cities in 1967. Hatcher wanted to see blacks win countywide offices and moved to make that happen at a county Democratic convention. After all, Hatcher argued that blacks delivered 25 percent of the Democratic vote and deserved some gains in return.
    
The Gary mayor introduced a resolution calling on the party to back a black candidate for a countywide office. When the party refused to do so, Hatcher and his delegation walked out of the convention.
    
Things, of course, have changed. There are three blacks holding countywide office, Clerk Mike Brown, Assessor Jerome Prince and Prosecutor Bernard Carter.
    
Rucker, of course, got named to the Supreme Court, not elected. I remember talking to Rucker a few years later when he visited Lake County. I joked that he couldn’t even win a small claims court election and now he was on the Supreme Court. In true Rucker style, he laughed.
    
I also found it interesting that as a Supreme Court justice, he took a seat on the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission which screened judge applicants and sent three names to the governor from which one was picked to fill a judicial vacancy.
    
As for Bielak, he got in legal trouble and left the bench. And, Bielak’s replacement? Sheila Moss, a black woman from Gary, got the job and remains on the bench.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. He is a columnist for the Times of Northwest Indiana.