MERRILLVILLE – Politically speaking, East Chicago was the capital of Indiana during the 33-year career of Mayor Robert A. Pastrick. Statewide candidates coveted his endorsement. Republicans feared his power. Democrats bathed in the city’s massive voter turnouts. Pastrick, who left office in 2004, passed away Oct. 28. He would have been 89 later this month.
Pastrick loved his native East Chicago where he served as city controller and city councilman prior to being elected mayor. He was elected mayor nine times until losing to George Pabey in a special election in 2003. His only other political loss was a bid for secretary of state.
Besides the residents of East Chicago, Pastrick was rich in close friends. Foremost among them was the late James Knight. Knight not only was city controller, but also advised Pastrick on a number of key interests, both governmentally and politically. Had Knight still been living, there are those who contend the sidewalk scandal of 1999 never would have happened.
Prior to the 1999 mayoral election, the city poured more than $20 million into public sidewalks throughout East Chicago. They were paid for with revenue from the city’s riverboat casino. While there is nothing wrong with the city pouring sidewalks, it did so without putting the project up for bids. Several city councilmen and the controller were convicted and sentenced to prison. Criminal charges never were filed against Pastrick. Those politically close to Pastrick engineered the sidewalk affair pretty much without him knowing the details.
It was the first time the city was challenged for doing things its way. What happened in East Chicago – so it is said – stayed in East Chicago. After winning a ninth term in 2003, loser George Pabey challenged the results based on allegations of vote fraud. The court threw out the results and ordered a new election. Pabey, based on the city’s majority Hispanic population, won the new election. Because of the drastic reduction in the number of jobs in the steel industry, the city had declined economically by the time Pastrick left office. That bothered Pastrick, who tried to help out by hiring out-of-work residents whenever possible. Pastrick was extremely close to U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, and because of that relationship, took his son, Evan Bayh, under his wing when he entered politics.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years.