Longtime County Employee Won—Then Lost—Top Job | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Longtime County Employee Won—Then Lost—Top Job

A longtime government employee in LaPorte County, Indiana may soon be on her way out. Bette Conroy climbed her way up the ladder to county clerk, only to suffer a tough election loss. A quirk in Indiana law has kept her in the job for a year-and-a-half after she was defeated. But that term's almost up.

About 70 miles from downtown Chicago, in the city center of quiet LaPorte, Indiana, is a red, castle-like courthouse. It's the home of LaPorte County government, Bette Conroy's employer since, well, practically forever.

CONROY: This is my 43rd year in elections.

Conroy is 66 years old, with curly grey hair and a cane and wheelchair that help her get around now that her back is a wreck.

CONROY: I worked with Dick Anderson, Kenneth Vail...
She's worked for a long succession of county clerks.

CONROY: ...Pat Smith, Ann Spevak, Lynne Spevak, Mr. Behler.

Then one day early last year, the then-clerk decided to retire, and move to San Diego. Democratic leaders picked Conroy to finish out his term.

CONROY: I was just elated to no end. My mother used to work in the clerk's office for 18 years, and she was a support clerk. I was just elated that I could work myself up to that point.

The Democratic primary for the full term as LaPorte County clerk was scheduled for just a few weeks after her appointment, and Conroy decided to run. She lost, finishing a distant third.

CONROY: And everybody said, 'Well, we voted for you. We can't understand what the totals are.' But I said, 'The totals are the totals, you know.'

And Conroy would know; as clerk, she supervises the elections.

CONROY: It was a little devastating, because I thought the race would be closer.
SPEVAK: [In] the primary I had 50, almost 51-percent against the other two ladies.

That's Lynne Spevak, the election winner. She'd previously served two terms as clerk, and Conroy was her top deputy. They'd become good friends. But things changed after they squared off in the 2008 primary battle, which included slights and rudeness, real or perceived, on both sides.

CONROY: We're friends. I mean, on my side we're friends.
SPEVAK: I still consider her a friend. I mean I'm not sure anything else.
CONROY: I talk to her, not about the job, but I speak to her everytime I see her, and...
SPEVAK: Some days you have friends and some days your friends are ballons in the sky that float away.

Prolonging this awkwardness was Indiana's arcane system of "holdover offices" that's kept Conroy in the job, and Spevak on the sidelines, for more than a year after the election. The confusing rules are being phased out, and this is the final year it impacts the LaPorte County clerk.

But in the meantime, what does Spevak, clerk-elect Spevak, do in that long break between election night and the day she takes the oath as one of LaPorte County's top officials?

SPEVAK: I was able to start a job, just as a cashier at a travel center. I work a midnight shift, and I meet a lot of people on that shift, even though you would think that everyone sleeps during the night, but they don't.

Spevak asked me not to interview her at the travel center. She says she doesn't think her bosses there know about her upcoming county job, and she doesn't want them to find out and think she's quitting, which, for the record, she might not.

SPEVAK: I don't know. It's a midnight shift. Who knows what will happen?
HUDZIK: You might work the midnight shift and then go to the clerk's office?
SPEVAK: Oh, who knows, who knows? I might become part time there. I'm not sure.

As for Bette Conroy, her employment in the LaPorte County courthouse that she calls her "second home" ends on December 31. She says she'd love to stay on as deputy to Spevak, but that's not looking likely given the rift between them. A rift that could leave the clerk's office without those 43 years of LaPorte County election knowledge. Whatever happens, though, Conroy says retirement's not an option.

CONROY: I still would like to work in county government someplace. I even told the sheriff I'd work over in the cafeteria part, because I love to cook and I do some catering and things like that. And I told him I would take a job over there. I'm not picky. I'm trainable. I might be old, but I'm trainable.

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