Election races heat up in Northwest Indiana

From East Chicago to Portage, a roundup of the top contests

November 7, 2011

General elections in Northwest Indiana can be, well, a bore. That’s because the region is so heavily committed to the Democratic Party. With the region so one-sided in its voting, the outcomes on the second Tuesday in November here are as predictable as cold temps in January in Chicago.

But this Tuesday, Nov. 8, is different.

There are several intriguing mayoral elections in Lake and Porter counties, with Republicans giving Dems a run for their money in several areas. So, come with me on this tour around "da Region," politics-style.

HAMMOND – Mayor McD versus Janiec

The primary reason this race is getting attention is because Republican George Janiec came within 500 votes of scoring arguably the biggest political upset in recent Northwest Indiana history.

That happened four years ago during the reelection campaign of Democrat Thomas McDermott Jr.

By his own admission, McDermott said he took the general election for granted. He’s not doing that this time around. After cruising through last May’s primary, McDermott is keeping the pressure on Janiec. In the last few weeks, McDermott has announced two major economic development projects.

In mid-October, McDermott was on hand for the grand opening of a new Wal-Mart on the city’s extreme North Side, less than a half mile from its border with Chicago. The retail giant built its second store in Hammond without the controversies that seem to follow it everywhere it goes in Chicago. The store is strategically placed to attract Chicagoans across the border.

That was followed by an announcement a week ago by the nation’s largest fertilizer manufacture, Canadian-based Potash Corporation, which plans to open a new $73 million distribution facility. The company says the development could create 300 construction jobs and 25 permanent jobs.

Job creation has been a central theme of McDermott’s tenure since 2004 when he became the city’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years. Ironically, his father, Tom McDermott Sr., served as mayor for eight years, but as a Republican.

Several major retailers have opened shop in the city during McDermott Jr.’s time in office. Some existing ones, including Horseshoe Casino and BP, have expanded operations.

 

One of McDermott’s most successful initiatives has been creation of the city’s College Bound program, which pays for the higher education of children who have grown up in Hammond. It was instituted to keep residents in Hammond and attract new ones. It seems like it has worked, with Hammond surpassing Gary as Northwest Indiana’s largest city.

But McDermott, a Naval veteran and graduate of the University of Notre Dame's Law School, also serves as the county’s Democratic party chairman, can rub people the wrong way with his aggressiveness, which can teeter on arrogance.

That could play in favor of Janiec, who serves on the Hammond school board.

Last April, Janiec had to fight in court just to remain on the Republican primary ballot.

Janiec’s was challenged because it was said his candidacy violated Indiana’s rules against politicking by school board members.

Although Lake County Superior Court Judge Jesse Villalpando Jr. ruled that Janiec should be thrown off the ballot, the Indiana Supreme Court quickly nullified that decision and ordered him back on.

It was believed that McDermott was behind trying to get Janiec off the ballot, although the mayor strongly denied he had any involvement.

Janiec’s main issues are business development and reducing crime.

Besides press conferences and news reports, McDermott’s getting his message out through his popular radio call in show on WJOB AM 1230 in Hammond.

However, he declined an invitation from the League of Women Voters of the Calumet Area to debate Janiec.

If Janiec is to pull off an upset, he’ll have to do it on a shoestring budget.  According to records from the Lake County Election Board, McDermott is working with more than $200,000 in campaign cash. Janiec had less than $600 as of the last candidate recording period last spring.

EAST CHICAGO

The biggest little city on the lake is no pushover when it comes to politics. Its political influence looms large over all of Northwest Indiana.

Elections are a rough and tumble business in this "Twin Cities" of less than 30,000, with literally dozens of people – including elected officials - going to jail for voter fraud and vote buying in the last decade.

It’s considered by many to be one of the most corrupt cities in America, although current Mayor Anthony Copeland hopes to change that image.

“The day will never come when I will make you ashamed for having given me this title (mayor). This day will be the first day of the resurrection of the city of East Chicago,” Copeland said nearly a year ago when the city’s Democratic caucus selected him to finish the term left by George Pabey, who was forced to resign after being convicted in federal court of using taxpayer dollars to pay for improvements on a house he owned with his daughter in neighboring Gary.

Pabey came in as a “reformer” and made a little history in 2004 by becoming the city’s first Hispanic mayor, not a big surprise considering the city’s more than half Latino. But most of that population is of Mexican descent. So the election of Pabey, who is Puerto Rican, raised eyebrows.

The mayor before Pabey was Robert Pastrick, who fell under intensive political and media scrutiny for his connection to a public works scandal that saw many of his elected and appointed city colleagues sent to prison in the mid-2000s.

Although he was never criminally charged with wrongdoing, the Indiana Attorney General’s office successfully sued Pastrick last year in federal court, which ordered the former mayor to repay the city he led for more than 30 year more than $100 million for the “sidewalk” scandal.

The lead counsel on the case for Indiana was Patrick Collins, a deputy prosecutor under U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago. Collins was behind the successful prosecution of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

Anthony Copeland’s ascension to the mayor’s office followed a long career in the city’s fire department and as a political activist. His popularity grew in the 1990s when he co-hosted a public access cable television show where he took shots at the Pastrick administration. He also ran a successful campaign for East Chicago City Council, where he became council president. But he lost a primary bid for mayor against Pabey four years ago.

But his selection in late 2010 made him the city’s first African-American mayor.

In most years, general elections here are an afterthought, almost a tedious waste of money.

Republicans are beyond weak in this city and this year is no different.

Republican candidate Arthur Santos has less than $2,000 in his back account, according to election documents, compared to Copeland’s $75,000. Santos has run unsuccessfully for mayor several times — collecting scant votes each time and has never appeared to be a sincere candidate.

So why is Copeland campaigning when he already beat his main primary challenger last May?

Because he is being challenged by independent candidate John Aguilera, who is aiming to become the city’s first Mexican-American mayor. Aguilera, who is actually a Democrat, has served as an Indiana State Representative and on the Lake County Council. As a state legislator, Aguilera establish the Indiana Commission on Latino Affairs.

Aguilera says he jumped in the race because others are unhappy with Copeland as a candidate.

He says ethnicity could play a role in the election.

“But this is not about race. This is about what is best for the community. People are smart enough to make those decisions on their own,” Aguilera told WBEZ.

Aguilera says his main objectives, if elected, is solving the city’s $13 million budget deficit, reducing crime, improving public schools and bringing in more homeowners, but decreasing public housing.

Copeland is using the last few weeks of the campaign touting accomplishments and highlighting achievements.

In late October, Copeland unveiled a new $52 million water filtration plant.

Last Thursday, Copeland was on hand when a new bridge, in the works for 10 years, was finally completed. The bridge allows easier access between the north and south sides of the city.

Despite its financial problems and corrupt image, Copeland says East Chicago has managed to stay away from ethnic divisions that plague other areas.

“I do not see color. The Lord has blessed this city with every shade of the rainbow, so I do not see that,” Copeland said. “Leadership looks past color. Leadership sees need and sees what is the common good for the greater good.”

Copeland says one of his main objectives is to continue working with the state of Indiana to rebuild the now-closed Cline Avenue Bridge. 

The bridge was shuttered by the state in 2008 for structural deficiencies. But losing the bridge has cut off easy access to East Chicago’s casino boat, lakefront and industry.

The state of Indiana plans to demolish the bridge but Copeland says he has other plans.

“Cline Avenue must go up and it shall go up,” Copeland said.

Santos could not be reached for comment.

Gary

Four candidates are vying for the mayor’s seat in the Steel City.

They include Republican candidate Charles Smith Jr., Unicratic Party candidate Eddie Tarver and LaVetta Sparks-Wade, an independent.

Democrats have ruled this city since the early 1940s, the last time a Republican served in the mayor’s office.

Barringa major upset, Democrats aren’t likely to lose that control.

Former Indiana Attorney General Karen Freeman-Wilson is trying to make history. If she wins, she would become the first female African-American mayor of any city in Indiana’s history.

She’s got a good shot. Her main opponents in last May’s primary were current Mayor Rudy Clay and Gary City Councilwoman Ragen Hatcher, whose father Richard Hatcher, served as mayor for much of the 70s and 80s.

But Clay dropped out of the race, citing an illness and backed Freeman-Wilson candidacy.

Freeman-Wilson, 50, is a Harvard trained attorney who served asa Gary City judge. Her plans are to curb violence, draw in more business and pursue a land-based casino. But it will be done with the backdrop of huge declines in population and a decimated property tax base.

Since the primary, the campaigning here has slowed but Freeman-Wilson has held press conferences and forums to discuss her immediate plans in her first 100 days in office. Some here have already called her "mayor-elect," jumping the gun on her expected victory on Tuesday.

The 48-year-old Smith is making his third run for mayor. He recently said at a mayoral forum that he’s not discouraged.

Tarver, 40, comes with a background in entertainment management. He started his Unicratic Party for Human Development in 2004.

Sparks-Wade, 47, has a worked the past 15 years with the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Both Tarver and Sparks-Wade have their own plans to tackle crime and the city’s budget problems.

Sparks-Wade wants to restructure the city’s 14 tax increment financing districts and pursue public-private partnerships.

Tarver hopes to attract jobs by developing an information technology incubator.

CROWN POINT

The City of Crown Point is the hub of very Democratic Lake County, Ind. South of Merrillville, Crown Point enjoys an affluent, suburban lifestyle. As the county seat, all of the county’s main offices are located there. Crown Point has a history of Republicanism, but can swing Democratic.

Democratic Mayor David Uran is vying for a second term as mayor against Republican Eldon Strong, who is trustee for Center Township and a 35-year veteran of the Crown Point Police Department.

Strong is running on a platform to reduce city debt.

Uran, who spent 13 years as a Crown Point police officer, says the much of the $24 million of debt was accumulated during the mayoral terms of previous mayors.

PORTAGE

In 2007, Olga Velazquez made history by becoming the first female mayor in the history of Portage, a growing city on the shores of Lake Michigan in Porter County. With nearly 40,000 residents, Portage is now the third largest city in Northwest Indiana and the largest in the county.

Velazquez succeeded Doug Olsen, who supported her candidacy. To win that race, she had to beat Republican Jim Snyder. She secured the victory by 300 votes.

This time around, to hold on to her seat, Velazquez will have to beat Snyder again. It appears it’s going to be a tough fight.

Snyder’s managed to secure the endorsements of the Portage Police FOP and the Portage Fire Union Local 3151. His campaign is focusing on reducing crime, increasing economic development and stabilizing the city’s budget.

Velazuez is campaigning on a plan to further reduce city crime and increase economic development.

Her campaign was aided by the announcement last summer that Fronius, an Austria-based solar energy company, plans to move its American headquarters to the city, bring more than 500 jobs within the next five years.

There are also mayoral races in Valparaiso, Lake Station, Hobart and Michigan City in LaPorte County, although the incumbents in those elections are considered strong candidate for re-election. 

There are also various races for city and town councils throughout Northwest Indiana.

Perhaps the biggest referendum question on the ballot is that for the Lake Central School District, which includes the "Tri-Town" areas of Schererville, Dyer and St. John. Voters there are being asked to decided on whether to support a $160 million bond issue to help pay for substantial construction improvements to an elementary school and its only high school in the bustling affluent suburban area several miles south of Gary.

The Lake Central school district is known for outstanding academics, great sports team and overcrowding at its high school. That’s why the district wants to expand and upgrade its current high school in St. John and another elementary school nearby.

It must be approved by residents who will see a bump to their property taxes.

Larry Veracco is superintendent for the Lake Central schools.

"People are coming here partly because the towns are good to live in too. Not just the schools, I mean, it’s a combination of factors. But, because of that, because of the growth and development, it’s lead to an overcrowding problem, especially at our high school," Veracco told WBEZ.

Two years ago, another building proposal to renovate the high school was voted down.

Veracco said this proposal is much different with more community input.