Rep. Peter Visclosky (D)
Indiana 1st District
At the southernmost shore of Lake Michigan is a part of America made by steel. Here, in the northwest corner of Indiana, where the water highway of the Great Lakes comes closest to the rail highway of the transcontinental railroads, America’s leading capitalists of a century ago identified an ideal site for manufacturing steel. On empty sand dunes, United States Steel, then the nation’s largest corporation, founded Gary in 1906 and named it for the company’s chairman, Chicago Judge Elbert Gary. For nearly 70 years, the steel mills attracted a diverse workforce, more like Chicago than the rest of Indiana: Irish, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, and blacks from the South. Politics here has always been turbulent, from the long and unsuccessful steel strike of 1919 to the racially polarized politics of the 1960s and 1970s. The city has been the setting for other historical events: It is the birthplace of the late pop star Michael Jackson and lent its name to a famous tune in the Broadway musical The Music Man. But the tone of public life—the clash between union stewards and management foremen, between African-Americans and Eastern European ethnics, between the stalwarts of different factions vying for control of Gary’s massive City Hall—was always abrasive, like the clash of steel on steel.
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Steel brought sudden growth and sudden depression to northwest Indiana. The massive storefronts built on Gary’s aptly named Broadway bear witness to the confidence and exuberance of the 1920s. Today they stand vacant—vandalized, whole blocks burned down—witness to steel layoffs, crime waves, and an acute sense of loss. The steel mills went cold during the Depression of the 1930s, but were again thronged with workers during World War II, and in the years afterward, their massiveness helped create the illusion that a robust economic life in the steel towns of Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago would last forever. But technological advances replaced increasingly expensive workers with increasingly efficient machines. And the efforts to seal off the U.S. steel market from the world inevitably failed. The oil crunch of 1979 was the catalyst for change, reducing the demand for large-sized autos, the biggest customer for steel. Steel employed 70,000 workers in northwest Indiana in 1979, 35,000 a few years later, and 18,500 in 2007. But with the average pay-and-benefits package exceeding $81,000 a year, the industry remains vital to the local economy. Obsolete mills were closed, old mills modernized, and new ones built that cut the number of man-hours needed by two-thirds. Just-in-time methods were introduced, and management and highly skilled workers cooperated to engineer higher-quality, less-expensive steel to meet market demands. In recent years, Indiana has been the No. 1 or No. 2 steel-producing state. In 2005, U.S. Steel announced a $260 million project to modernize its largest blast furnace in Gary. But the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 blocked a permit for the facility, based on the amount of pollution that the mill would likely dump into the Grand Calumet River.
As the steel industry was shifting and changing, Gary was falling almost into ruins. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in 2006 said the city was saddled with “the same problems facing less developed countries.” In 1967, Gary elected a black mayor, Richard Hatcher, who was determined to use city government to cure poverty. But high crime rates gave Gary the distinction for many years as the “murder capital” of the country, with the most homicides per capita. White flight to the suburbs ensued, and the city’s population steadily fell, from a peak of 178,000 in 1960 to 97,000 in 2007. In nearby majority-white Hammond, with many Hispanic immigrants, the population loss was not as dramatic. Local officials tried to promote the city’s airport as a third Chicago-area airport, with only limited success. Since Hooters Air suspended operations in January 2006, the airport has had no regularly scheduled passenger service, although Chicago-based Boeing has parked its private-jet fleet at the airport. (In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama used the airport several times for his charter flights.) Like other economically desperate cities in the Midwest, such as East St. Louis, Gary has come to rely on gambling for tax income. It has two riverboat casinos.
Indiana’s 1st Congressional District stretches from Gary and Hammond along the Lake Michigan shoreline, east almost to Michigan City. It includes Lake County, which was 25% African-American and 12% Hispanic in 2000, and Porter County to the east. In Porter is the city of Valparaiso, known locally as Valpo, notable for its annual Popcorn Festivals honoring longtime resident and developer of 300 popcorn hybrids Orville Redenbacher. The district includes three small Republican-leaning counties south of Gary, but nearly three-quarters of the population is in Lake County. This remains the most Democratic district in politically balanced Indiana, as it has been since the United Steelworkers’ organizing drives of the late 1930s. In 2005, a nationwide research study ranked Gary as the second-most-liberal city in the nation, after Detroit.
Rep. Peter Visclosky (D)
Elected: 1984, 13th term.
Born: Aug. 13, 1949, Gary .
Education: IN U. Northwest, B.S. 1970, U. of Notre Dame, J.D. 1973, Georgetown U., LL.M. 1982.
Family: Married (Joanne Royce); 2 children.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1973–76, 1983–84; Aide, U.S. Rep. Adam Benjamin, 1976–82.
The congressman from the 1st District is Peter Visclosky, a Democrat first elected in 1984. As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Visclosky was one of the powerful “cardinals” of the House. But he was forced to step aside, at least temporarily, in June 2009 after he was subpoenaed as part of a grand jury investigation into possible corruption in the appropriations process. The next-in-line in seniority, Democrat Ed Pastor of Arizona, took over the subcommittee for the duration of the investigation. In 2007, The Indianapolis Star reported that Visclosky had steered more than $12 million to out-of-state defense companies that contributed to his campaign. Much of that federal money had been secured through the efforts of a lobbying firm, PMA Group, that hired a former top Visclosky aide, Richard Kaelin, the newspaper reported. Visclosky said he expected to be cleared of wrongdoing. “I have always abided by the law and adhered to the rules and code of ethics of the House,” he said in a June 2, 2009 statement.
|Peter Visclosky (D)||199,954||(71%)||($1,664,250)|
|Mark Leyva (R)||76,647||(27%)||($12,024)|
|Peter Visclosky (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (70%), 2004 (68%), 2002 (67%), 2000 (72%), 1998 (73%), 1996 (69%), 1994 (56%), 1992 (69%), 1990 (66%), 1988 (77%), 1986 (73%), 1984 (71%)
Visclosky grew up in Lake County. His father was mayor of Gary in the early 1960s, and Visclosky went to college there and to law school at the University of Notre Dame. He practiced law and then worked for six years in Washington for 1st District Rep. Adam Benjamin, a Democrat. Benjamin died suddenly of a heart ailment in 1982, and Visclosky returned to Indiana. In 1984, he ran for the seat in the Democratic primary against Katie Hall, a black state senator who had been given the 1982 nomination—and thus the election, in this Democratic district—by Mayor Hatcher, who was also the district’s party chairman. In the 1984 contest, she faced a determined Visclosky, who pulled out all the stops to connect with voters since he couldn’t rely on the local Democratic establishment, which was backing Hall. He called himself the “Slovak Kid” to connect with the district’s many European ethnic groups, and he held hot dog dinners to attract young people and others not usually seeped in local politics. Visclosky narrowly prevailed over Hall with 34% of the vote to her 33%.
Visclosky’s voting record has trended in the direction of moderate, and he concentrates much of his effort on projects to help the local economy, especially the steel industry. He has a solid pro-union voting record. He is a leader of the Congressional Steel Caucus and has been vigilant in monitoring surges in steel imports. When George W. Bush was elected president in 2000 with critical help from steel-producing areas, Visclosky had greater leverage, and Bush did impose steel import quotas. But when the quotas were removed, Visclosky protested that Bush “stabbed the American steelworkers in the back.” Visclosky, meanwhile, sought health benefits for unemployed and retired workers whose steel companies were unable to pay them, and he again called for close monitoring of imports. In 2005, he joined a bipartisan group of House members calling for repeal of permanent trade relations with China, which he termed “a one-way street.” He criticized Bush for rejecting a recommendation to provide relief to American pipe-steel producers suffering from Chinese imports. In 2008, he sought to require that federally funded projects use only American-made steel, and he called for increased duties on subsidized steel, especially steel from China.
As the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, Visclosky was adept at securing federal funding for projects in his district and doling them out to other lawmakers. One of his efforts was passing an exemption to the federal Johnson Act that made Lake Michigan waters eligible for gambling and thus allowing riverboat casinos for Gary. On broader national issues, Visclosky in 2007 rejected the Bush administration’s request for $89 million for a new nuclear warhead, and he slashed from $405 million to $120 million the administration’s proposed funding for reprocessing fuel rods in nuclear power plants, which was opposed by anti-nuclear-power environmentalists. He added more than $1 billion for the Energy Department’s research and development of civilian energy technologies, including renewable fuels and energy efficiency.
At home, Visclosky appeared secure until he became a target in the corruption probe in early 2009.