“I'm not a politician. I am a public servant.”
That quote has been ringing in my ears ever since I saw a report on Gary, Indiana's feisty mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson on a recent NBC nightly news report. Gary, Indiana is among the most desolate urban landscapes in America, right up there with East St. Louis, Ill. In its heyday back in the 1950s, Gary's population exceeded 200,000. By the 2010 census, the population figures had dropped to around 80,000.
Remind you of any place familiar to you?
However, it wasn't farming that the bottom fell out; it was the steel industry. Home to U.S. Steel, the industry currently employs 6,000 compared to the 50,000 that worked at the facility in the more prosperous decades of the past. Boarded up homes, empty streets and rundown storefronts and over grown lots are the end result of the loss of those jobs.
In Harry Smith's report for NBC News, Freeman-Wilson was seen walking with the people, picking up broken bottles and other trash and debris from the streets. She said she's willing to start with small victories like better lighting, safer streets, pothole free streets and repaired sidewalks.
Freeman-Williams, 51, is the first female mayor of the once steel empire of the Midwest and the first African-American female mayor in the state of Indiana. She briefly served as Indiana's attorney general and was a strong advocate against nursing home abuse, gasoline price gouging and was a firm supporter of Americans with Disabilities Act.
Gary, Indiana's story is not unlike Helena-West Helena. Oh sure, we're a lot smaller but the results are the same – a lost industry (farming) and a mass exodus from the community following the prosperous decade of the 70s.
I have said all of this to make this point. The people we need today (in Helena-West Helena and Phillips County) are not politicians but public servants. Freeman-Williams has shown that she is willing to roll up her sleeves and get out and work with the people, instead of being treated like some type of royalty.
Over the years it has been quite frustrating to be introduced to the next political candidate as the next savior of the state, city, county, etc. Frankly, I haven't met one yet that has lived up to all of the lip service and promises. The truth is one person sitting in the halls of Congress, the state legislature, city hall or quorum court can do one single thing to change the system.
When said dignitaries visit, locals roll out the red carpet and look for the finest place to eat. The citizenry wants to impress the royal visitor by showing them just how well all that grant money and pork barrel funds are being spent in their district.
There are a lot of Phillips County folks that have talked the talk more than walked the walk. Boarded up buildings and rat-infested lots still exist but not to the extent they did when I arrived here almost 24 years ago.
Page 2 of 2 - Cherry Street is again becoming a hub of activity, though nowhere near the scale it was four or five decades ago. Some hard working people have managed to salvage some landmarks such as the old Malco Theater and Civil War Helena has brought a glorious restoration to its historic past. Of course, there is much more we could enumerate but space and time won't allow it.
Right now, what we need is a Karen Freeman-Wilson to step forward. And when those governor and senator want-to-be's arrives, she'll invite them to put on their walking shoes and pick up a trash bag and take it to the streets to Helena-West Helena.
There'll be time to wine and dine when the hungry are fed and the poor have jobs.
Getting the better lighting, fixing the potholes and lowering the crime rate are all steps in the right direction. But until, we get the politicians to come down from their thrones there only going to be small victories.
We need public servants, not politicians to solve our problems.