GARY, Ind. – A grassroots campaign by steelworker and union leader Mary Elgin resulted in what is being called the biggest political upset in decades in this solidly working-class community. Elgin defeated Dozier Allen for Calumet Township Trustee with 48 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. A victory in the primary here is tantamount to being elected, since there is rarely a Republican challenge.
Many so-called experts didn’t expect Elgin, an unknown newcomer to politics, to beat the powerful political Democratic machine that was supporting the incumbent, who had been in office for 32 years. To their astonishment Elgin won narrowly by 800 votes.
Elgin is the sitting Financial Secretary of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 1010 in East Chicago, representing 6,000 steelworkers at the Inland/ISPAT plant. She is also president of the local chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and a leader of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, as well as the NAACP.
One of her campaign co-chairmen was USWA Local 1014 President Alex Wheeler, who represents workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works. The campaign ran on more people-power than money. There was no phone-banking; instead, groups of citizens, mostly steelworkers, went door to door. They handed out literature at intersections, bus and train stops, churches, bars, clubs and just about everywhere people congregated.
Throughout the campaign, laid-off LTV workers and other union workers came to meetings and helped blitz the neighborhoods. USWA District 7 Director Jim Robinson and other local steelworker presidents sent out thousands of letters asking for a vote for Elgin.
As a result of all the hard work, the campaign headquarters was swamped with requests for yard signs that there was no money to provide. In addition the incumbent’s campaigners stole the signs out of yards at an alarming rate.
The main piece of literature was called the ‘Elgin Energizer,’ an eight-page newspaper. It introduced Elgin to the rest of the community and laid the factual basis for her campaign.
The Calumet Township includes all of Gary, the adjoining city of Griffith and some unincorporated areas. The regular Democratic machine had endorsed Allen in four of Gary’s districts and in all of Griffith. Two-term Mayor Gary Scott King also backed Allen. The Trustee’s office has over 200 employees and countless contracts for services with area businesses.
It was all of this that made the possibility of winning seem daunting at times. But it was all this that provided some of the grounds for Elgin’s attack.
The incumbent’s handing out of jobs and no-bid contracts to friends and family at inflated prices resulted in many questions. Not much of the $32 million budget went to poor relief or job training, which is the main duty of the Trustee’s office. Elgin also criticized the Trustee for not using his office to speak out on the issues affecting the poor, like utility rates, housing, schools and taxes.
On the day of the election organized labor really showed their ability to put people in the polls for Elgin. Over 300 people were needed and besides the USWA, workers from other unions, including Service Employees International Union, which provided a list of workers from the hospitals and nursing homes in the areas, helped out.
On election night the vote tallies were watched at McBride Hall, which has the offices of both Local 1014 and USWA District 7. There Elgin declared victory, thanked her union and said, ‘This was a people’s vote and a people’s victory.’
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