Northwest Indiana elections yield shake-ups

Upset in Portage, history made in Gary

November 9, 2011

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Puente with Karen Freeman-Wilson 2-way.mp3Democratic candidates for mayor in the Northwest Indiana cities of Hammond and Gary were expected to win big in Tuesday’s general election. And did they ever.

In Hammond, an expected strong showing by Republican candidate George Janiec did not materialize, and the Democratic incumbent Thomas McDermott prevailed with a gaping lead by night’s end. In a similar contest four years ago, Janiec had come within 500 votes of upsetting McDermott.

On Tuesday, he had no such luck.

McDermott trounced Janiec by collecting 80 percent of the vote in Northwest Indiana’s largest city. McDermott’s victory earns him his third four-year term as mayor.

“We’re just going to continue doing what we’ve been doing. Hammond residents are happy,” a jubilant McDermott told WBEZ during victory celebration at his campaign headquarters in the city’s Woodmar shopping district.

Throughout this year’s campaign, McDermott said Janiec’s near upset in 2007 was a fluke, one stoked by McDermott’s decision to close the city’s health department earlier that year. McDermott also did very little campaigning in the 2007 contest because he’d spent a good deal of energy during the Democratic primary. That’s a common occurrence in Northwest Indiana, given its status as a Democratic bastion.

This time around, McDermott didn’t take a victory for granted and campaigned hard throughout the season. He also received a boost from economic development announcements, including the opening of the city’s second Walmart near its border with Chicago. The city also announced that a fertilizer company plans to open a multi-million dollar distribution center.

McDermott says he’s going to press the economic development issue during his upcoming term. One concern will be the future of the city’s sizable gaming industry. Hammond’s Horseshoe Casino has drawn the ire of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wants a casino in his city, primarily to keep Chicago gaming dollars closer to home.

McDermott says he’d like to discuss the situation with Emanuel to see how the two cities can work with each other.

“I think Mayor Emanuel and I have a lot in common and hopefully we can work through that issue,” McDermott said.

History made in Gary

In neighboring Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson won big over three challengers, including Republican candidate Charles Smith Jr.

Freeman-Wilson, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor twice before, becomes the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of any Indiana city in the state’s history.

And, even though her victory was expected when she won the Democratic primary over 10 other contenders, it didn’t stop the Freeman-Wilson campaign from throwing a big celebration at Gary’s Genesis Conviction Center Tuesday night.

Music, dancing, balloons and chants greeted a jubilant Freeman-Wilson.

“We are here to celebrate a new day in Gary, Indiana. A new day for Gary and a new day for all of Northwest Indiana,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Freeman-Wilson said her priorities will be economic development, fighting crime and trying to change the city’s negative image.

She said, shortly after her term begins Jan. 1, she’ll conduct a nation-wide search for a new police chief.

Among those congratulating Freeman-Wilson Tuesday night was current mayor Rudy Clay, who dropped out of the primary last spring after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

New Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson discusses her plans for Gary public safety and economic development:

puente-karen-freeman-wilson-2-way.mp3

Copeland keeps East Chicago, Velazquez out in Portage

Perhaps the biggest shock of the night was the re-election loss by Portage’s incumbent Democratic mayor, Olga Velazquez.

As in Hammond, the contest was a rematch.

Velazquez had faced Republican Jim Snyder four years ago and won that race, becoming the city’s first female mayor. This time around, Snyder focused on a platform of reducing crime, increasing economic development and stabilizing the city’s budget. He won by just more than three percentage points.

Other mayoral races in Northwest Indiana were not so close. East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland clinched his contest against two opponents, including independent candidate John Aguilera.

In late 2011, Copeland was selected by the city’s Democratic caucus to finish the term left by former Mayor George Pabey, who resigned after being convicted on federal corruption charges.

In Crown Point, incumbent Demoratic Mayor David Uran easily won re-election against Republican Eldon Strong.

Urban earned his second four-year term in a Lake County city that has a long history of choosing Republican mayors.

In neighboring Porter County, Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas, a Republican, handily won his third term as mayor by a 2-to-1 margin.