Rudy Clay

Rudy Clay, former mayor of Gary, Ind., claimed to be the state's first African American state senator, was Lake County's first black Recorder, and was a county commissioner before becoming mayor in 2006. (Warren Skalski / Chicago Tribune / July 11, 2009)

Former Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, who cut a dapper, easygoing figure amid the city's roughneck politics for four decades, died Tuesday after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer.

Mr. Clay's perpetually smiling face — framed by mutton-chop sideburns — and the stylishly tailored suits and monogrammed shirts he draped over his reed-thin frame were the trademarks of a remarkable political career.

He came off as pugnacious in a rare moment in the national spotlight — on primary night in 2008, he sparred with Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. on CNN over late-breaking returns in the heated contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — but in Indiana's Lake County he was known as one of the most genial and flamboyant characters in the colorful that area's political scene.

He died shortly after noon in his home on the city's west side, said his wife, Christine Swan Clay. He was 77.

"He was a consummate politician," said state Sen. Earline Rogers, a longtime friend and neighbor, as she watched the street in front of Mr. Clay's house fill with the cars of mourners.

"He loved people. He loved to campaign. No matter what position he held, he loved people."

Friends only guessed how serious his illness was when he dropped out of his re-election bid in 2011. The upbeat Mr. Clay would not have worried about losing, and for a man whose pockets were stuffed with Mayor Clay bookmarks, campaigning was never a chore, Rogers said.

The flamboyant Mr. Clay claimed to be Indiana's first African-American state senator, was Lake County's first black recorder, and was a county commissioner before becoming mayor in 2006.

While his skills as a campaigner were never in doubt, his ability to govern his struggling city was a matter of dispute. Mr. Clay took office as changes to the state property tax system halved the budget and city finances collapsed.

Though he won re-election amid the turmoil, Mr. Clay took on political heat by making an appeal to a state panel to raise taxes, and defiantly refused to give up his city-leased Hummer SUV and his security detail.

He embraced a series of fanciful economic development ideas, announcing tentative deals with investors to build a monorail from Gary to the suburbs south of the city and a company that said it would provide hovercraft service from Gary's lakefront casinos to Navy Pier.

Later, he would court Joe Jackson, father of Gary native Michael Jackson, announcing plans for a Jackson museum in the city. More pragmatically, Mr. Clay also pushed for improvements to Gary/Chicago International Airport and to build a land-based casino in the city.

Mr. Clay's success lay in a combination of an ability to win over voters in the streets where he was raised, and in deftly navigating backroom politics in Lake County. While he won elections to state and county office at the polls, he became mayor after his predecessor resigned and precinct captains voted him into office by a two-vote margin.

He came of age politically during the early days of the civil rights era and was well-known in the Gary community as an insurance salesman, back when agents went door-to-door to make sales and collect premiums, said his wife of 55 years

Mr. Clay was devoted to the city as his cancer grew worse even in his first years as mayor, said retired NFL star Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, a childhood friend. Though his health was declining, Mr. Clay gave up his re-election bid reluctantly.

"He knew what to expect," Williamson said. "It wasn't the job that was stressing him. He just couldn't maintain it with the chemo."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Clay also is survived by a son, Rudy Jr.

Services are pending, but Mr. Clay had asked to hold the event at the city's downtown Genesis Convention Center.

agrimm@tribune.com

Twitter @agrimm34