Many individuals in our community were saddened last week by the sudden death of Z. Mae Jimison, 64, the first Black woman to serve as a judge in Marion County and the first African American nominated to run for mayor of Indianapolis.
It is important for future generations, who might dig this article up from a dusty archive someday; to understand the profound political impact she had on this city.
Probably sooner than later, Indianapolis will elect its first African American or woman mayor. Hopefully that person will remember to thank Jimison during their victory speech. Jimison’s historic run for mayor in 1995 allowed everyone to see that the possibility of a person of color in control at the City-County Building was not a fantasy.
Although his campaigns for the presidency were unsuccessful, Rev. Jesse Jackson built a political foundation for Sen. Barack Obama. Jimison has done the same thing on a local level by blazing a trail for the city’s first Black, Latino or woman mayor.
From the beginning, Jimison’s campaign was a journey of courage. In the Democratic primary she planned to make a brave run against the county party chairman. In a surprise move the party chairman withdrew from the race, making Jimison the first African American nominated by a major party to run for mayor.
Jimison then had to face incumbent Republican Mayor Steve Goldsmith in the general election. She knew the odds were against her, since Republicans had held on to the mayor’s office for almost 30 years and Goldsmith had over $2 million for his campaign. Jimison never raised more than $40,000.
Still, Jimison, a member of the City-County Council at the time pressed on, believing that God’s will would be done no matter who won.
Although a conservative student in high school at the time, I served as a volunteer for Jimison. I was drawn to her down-to-earth personality, eloquence and commitment to bringing people into the political process who previously had no interest in it.
Jimison’s campaign attracted people from all stations of life, from business professionals to labor; from ministers to ex-cons trying to turn their lives around; from octogenarian retirees to youngsters like myself rooted in the hip-hop culture.
Mayor Goldsmith presented great ideas that developed downtown, but various problems continued to exist in neighborhoods, including an undercurrent of mistrust between some citizens and police, as well as frustration over allegations that many of the city’s important decisions were being made “behind closed doors” without citizen input.
Jimison, a candidate ahead of her time, promised to make local government more open with town hall meetings, fix up vacant homes for the homeless, take a leading role on health issues such as teenage pregnancy and AIDS, and create a tax on suburban residents who benefit from Indianapolis services when they come into the city to work but don’t pay anything for them (something that could have helped the city during the state’s property tax crisis).
She also pledged to give a voice to citizens by holding referendums on issues such as whether or not a new stadium should be built for the Pacers.
Although she lost the election, she did better than most observers expected with limited resources and advertising.
“Some may think I walk away in defeat,” she told reporters at the time. “But I assure you, that’s not true. I walk away after a journey filled with a lot of tests, a lot of trials and a lot of joys.”
As a county judge (who served from 1988 to 1990, and again from 1996 to 2002) Jimison was also ahead of her time in many aspects. Although criticized for alleged leniency as a judge, Jimison was among the first local officials to recognize that drug addiction is not a crime, but a medical illness that must be treated in order to prevent crime. As the first judge to preside over the county’s drug treatment court, she encouraged addicts to pursue second chances to improve their lives.
About seven years ago I enjoyed my last conversation with Jimison. We joked about her running for mayor again and the possibility of her being related to Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space. Many individuals would testify that it was always a pleasure speaking with her; you always felt better than you did beforehand.
Jimison joins Congresswoman Julia Carson, City-County Councilman Elwood Black and other recently departed individuals who came from a generation that enjoyed the art of public service more than the prestige of politics.
Her life of service and compassion has offered lessons that we can all benefit from for many years to come. She will be greatly missed.