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Thursday, July 11, 2013 1:16 PM
MERRILLVILLE – You know the saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all. I suspect Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority have that feeling right about now.
That’s because it was announced last week that completion of a $166-million expansion project was being delayed – again. Rather than being ready at the end of this year, it now is estimated that the project, largely runway expansion, won’t be completed until September 2014 at the earliest.
Despite the delay, the Airport Authority will proceed with plans to attract a private investor willing to put up at least $100 million as part of a private/public partnership. The expansion project involves railroad relocation and remediation of polluted soil and groundwater to allow for runway expansion.
The irony is that the very thing that led to Northwest Indiana becoming an industrial giant is now blocking the area’s future. The land around the airport is among the most polluted in the country. And that obviously didn’t happen overnight.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Lake County Democrats have a long and proud tradition of beating Republicans on the local and county levels. And the Democratic vote often is so great that statewide Republican candidates fear the impact of the Lake County vote. The Lake Democrats won again this week, not only beating statewide Republicans but a local GOP elected official as well. Lake Circuit Judge George Paras declared Senate Bill 385 unconstitutional, which was a blow to the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Paras ruled the law unconstitutional because it was special legislation. Paras’ ruling also left state Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, the bill’s author, with egg on his face. The bill would have required Lake County to eliminate the majority of its precincts that have fewer than 500 registered voters. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Munster is the richest community in Lake County and also the most Republican. When it was learned a week ago that the Munster schools were $8 million in debt and behind on utility bills, political heads began turning. Munster school officials quickly put the blame on the Republican controlled General Assembly, which writes the school-funding formula. The Republican attacks on Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and their disregard for the public education system as a whole are expected to play a major role in the November elections, both on the state and local level. That may be particularly true in the 15th House District where Democrat Jim Wieser is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Hal Slager. The two are Schererville residents who are part of the Lake Central School Corp. Lake Central receives even less than Munster in per-pupil funding. Wieser said the Republican assault on education is largely what prompted him to seek the state representative post. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – What Evan Bayh is doing to the Indiana Democratic Party is criminal. If convicted by the party faithful, he ought to be banned from Hoosier Democratic activities for life. The former governor and U.S. senator left the party in the lurch when he decided at the last minute that he would not seek reelection to the Senate, which essentially handed the office to Republican Dan Coats a few years back. Indiana Democrats pretty much thought that was the political end to Bayh, the son of former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, who is the greatest Democrat to represent Indiana at any level. But Evan kept the door open a crack. He would never say never about a political future. And that stance froze Indiana Democrats in terms of lining up a candidate to run for governor in 2016. 
  • MERRILLVILLE –  Can we have a frank discussion? Frankly speaking, I think it would be a good thing for the taxpayers of Indiana. We are talking about the franking privileges enjoyed by legislators in the Indiana General Assembly. And a recent column about the reality of franking and the abuse of the system has created a firestorm of sorts. The column was about a slick brochure sent by House District 15 State Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, to constituents in the greater St. John Township area of Lake County. Like most mindless franking mail, the brochure talked about job creation and how wonderful things are in Indiana. It talked about how Slager voted to appropriate an additional $400 million – above the usual highway budget – for road work in Indiana and how that would result in the creation of additional jobs. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Although their numbers have fallen, unions in Northwest Indiana remain a viable force when it comes to electing folks to public office. Politicians – make that largely Democratic candidates – go out of their way to seek the support of unions. And if they win a union endorsement, the fact is proudly displayed on campaign literature prior to primary and general elections. That union label is in large part why there are signs in yards across the region proclaiming “Proud Union Home.” Many times, the signs will refer to the specific union. As a result, the Northwest Indiana Building and Construction Trades, the United Steelworkers of America, Teamsters and other unions remain a viable part of the fabric of Northwest Indiana. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Regionalism has been the buzzword in Northwest Indiana for the better part of the last decade. There has been a concentrated effort to bring togetherness to the most segregated part of the state. There has been success, including decisions to move ahead with the Illiana Expressway, as well as the $571 million extension of the South Shore Railroad to Dyer. The South Shore project is being shepherded by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky who has vowed to provide federal funding to cover half of the construction cost. Visclosky has asked Lake County communities to commit 34 percent of their new local income tax money to the project for a term of 30 years.  
  • MERRILLVILLE – Although the election is more than a month away, you’ve got to figure that Sheriff John Buncich will be the next Lake County Democratic chairman. June 28 is the targeted date for the county’s 526 precinct committeemen to select a replacement for Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, who is stepping down as chairman because he might seek higher office down the road. McDermott said he will run for re-election as mayor next year. He hasn’t said he will run for governor in 2016, but be assured that is where he is heading. In announcing his decision to resign as chairman, McDermott said it wouldn’t look good for him to campaign for statewide office while also serving as county Democratic chairman. McDermott explained that there is a negative connected with being from Lake County, and that negative would be magnified if a person is sitting as Democratic county chairman. Apparently being a Lake County Democrat is a whole lot better than being Lake County Democratic chairman. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Probably the worst kept secret in Lake County politics is that Hammond Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr. would like to one day replace U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, in Congress. Because Visclosky is virtually unbeatable, McDermott would have to wait for him to retire before having a chance. One thing that could give McDermott an advantage once Visclosky has stepped down is the fact that he is the Lake County Democratic chairman and has firm control of the organization. McDermott took a rather bold step about a week ago when he said converting Lake County into a single municipality is the best way to achieve true regionalism. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – As much as Gov. Mike Pence and downstate Republicans would like the Cline Avenue Bridge issue to go away, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Lake County’s casino industry won’t let talk of the bridge become a thing of the past. The state refused to rebuild the bridge after it was shut down in November 2009 because the deck had become structurally weak. Cline Avenue, which is a state highway, is the principal Lake County artery connecting Interstate 80/94 and the Indiana Toll Road and eventually the Chicago Skyway. The state said the estimated cost of $150 million to replace a portion of the bridge couldn’t be justified, even though Indiana is sitting on a $2 billion surplus. 
  • MERRILLVILLE - The five candidates for Lake County sheriff – three Democrats and two Republicans – threw barbs at each other during a debate this week at Purdue University Calumet. The one who drew the most attention at the fund-raiser was Joseph Kumstar, who was the deputy police chief under Dominguez. Kumstar was among the three officers indicted for the illegal acquisition and sale of restricted machine gun parts and laser sights. Kumstar used sheriff’s department stationary as his cover for acquiring the weapons. Kumstar pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison. He hasn’t begun serving his sentence because he is expected to testify against the gun firm that delivered the parts. Kumstar was introduced at Richard Ligon’s fund-raiser as a key player in the campaign.  
  • MERRILLVILLE – It’s no wonder that Democrats continue to dominate politically in Lake County.  Republicans are in such a state of disarray that they can’t even begin to mount a challenge to the Democrats. The latest intraparty squabble is one of the best in recent decades. At odds are Lake County Republican Party Chairman Dan Dernulc, who also is a county councilman, and Kim Krull, who was chairwoman prior to Dernulc, who was elected chairman in March 2013. Krull, who didn’t seek re-election, supported Allan Katz as her replacement. Dernulc won by seven votes. What has transpired since has led to Dernulc and Krull filing charges against each other. Krull has filed a complaint with the Indiana Republican Central Committee asking that Dernulc and county party treasurer Andy Qunell be removed from office, or at the very least, reprimanded. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – It could have been worse. Much worse. But in the end, it wasn’t good. You might say it pretty much was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Indiana could have lived without the 2014 short session of the General Assembly that ended last week. It was about 1970 that the state started holding short sessions for the purpose of putting Band-Aids on the biennial budget passed the previous year. While legislators this year didn’t fuss with the budget, they didn’t do a couple of things they intended to do. That’s good. For instance … With the clock ticking toward a midnight adjournment Thursday, the Senate deadlocked on a bill to require drug testing for some welfare recipients. While some said the bill was an effort to help people get off drugs, it was little more than an effort to punish some of the state’s less fortunate. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Every time the Lake County Republican precinct organization elects a new chairman, there is renewed hope that the party finally will make gains. Such was the case when county Councilman Dan Dernulc was elected chairman a year or so ago. One would have to say he has had an inauspicious start. For instance, let’s take the 1st Congressional District where Democratic Rep. Peter Visclosky, is seeking a 16th term. While local Republicans love to criticize Visclosky for being too liberal, they once again have failed to file a viable candidate against him. Visclosky in the fall will again face perennial candidate Mark Leyva, who chairs the Tea Party in Lake County. Leyva never has come close to beating Visclosky and has virtually no chance again this year. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – It is often said that the residents of Northwest Indiana know more about the politics and the candidates in Illinois than in Indiana. There is a good deal of truth in that. It is all about television. This corner of the state receives its television news from the network affiliates in Chicago. The national networks don’t have affiliates in Northwest Indiana. There probably are those living in Northwest Indiana who think the Hoosier governor is Pat Quinn, not Mike Pence. It’s the television influence. 
  • MERRILLVILLE - Economic development too often is a political phrase designed to capture the attention of the voter. Yet, too often, it is a pie-in-the-sky goal as opposed to reality. But there are times when economic development becomes something that can be grasped at the local level. Such was the case in Northwest Indiana a week or so ago. That was when Gov. Mike Pence announced that Indiana is among 15 states in the running to be home to a $10 billion Boeing airplane manufacturing and assembly facility that could employ as many as 8,500 people by the end of the next decade. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – The votes of the mayors of Lake County’s two largest cities on the Illiana Expressway likely have highway and urban planners shaking their heads. And the political twist may be the most interesting. The highway, which will connect Interstate 65 in Indiana and I-55 in Illinois, will run east and west just north of Lowell. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, who opposed the expressway, called for weighted voting, meaning the value of each municipality’s vote was based on its share of the population of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. Being the largest city in the region, Hammond’s vote was worth more than 11 percent of the total. The weighted vote was 76-20 in support of building the new highway. The individual vote was 29-8 in support of the highway. McDermott said he opposed Illiana because it would hurt his city. “I think it will further contribute to sprawl and to disinvestment from the city of Hammond, and that’s my responsibility,” McDermott said, adding that he also felt for the farmers who would lose some of their land and have their lifestyles changed forever.
  • MERRILLVILLE - Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. came under fire a week ago when a Republican activist filed a complaint with the Lake County Election Board. Eric Krieg alleges that McDermott has violated state law by not detailing exactly what kind of work was done by McDermott’s wife over the last decade or so when she was paid about $300,000 for her work on her husband’s campaigns. It has gotten McDermott into a bit of a mess even though Krieg is wrong about the campaign reporting requirement.

  • MERRILLVILLE – That old “like father, like son” saying could hold true for the Thomas McDermott family of Hammond. Thomas M. McDermott Sr. ended a Democratic stronghold of the mayor’s office in 1983 when he was elected to the city’s top job as a Republican. He was re-elected in 1987 and 1991. Shortly after starting his third term, the elder McDermott resigned to become president of the Northwest Indiana Forum Inc., the region’s leading economic development agency. During the 1988 gubernatorial campaign, McDermott Sr. looked toward statewide office. While he considered running for governor, what he really sought was to be the Republican Party’s lieutenant governor candidate. The thinking at the time was that McDermott could diffuse the heavy Democratic vote in Lake County and help Republican John Mutz win the governor’s office. But McDermott didn’t get the lieutenant governor’s nomination and that pretty much ended his push for political office greater than mayor.
  • MERRILLVILLE  – It wasn’t the best of weeks for the city of Gary. In fact, it ranked right up there with the worst of them. On a number of fronts, the city took a bashing. Even the one bright note came with a price. The Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority named B.R. Lane the interim director of the airport. Lane is the chief of staff for Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, making $99,000 annually. Two weeks ago, Lane was nominated to the airport director’s job, but the board deadlocked. Last week she was unanimously approved, even though she has no experience in the aviation industry. She will be paid about $10,000 per month. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Halfway through his 15th term in Congress, Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, finally is losing patience with Northwest Indiana. It was obvious in what he had to say last week to an interim legislative committee studying the future of commuter rail in Indiana. The committee discussed a 20-year-old plan to expand South Shore commuter rail service to Lowell or at least to Dyer. The same plan also wants commuter rail expanded to Valparaiso. After a lengthy discussion about a business plan for the commuter railroad, Visclosky seemed to be at wit’s end. 

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  • Chairman Zody plots Indiana Democratic comeback
    “You start with some gains this year and try and make some headway. This is a long-term strategy toward regaining majorities in 2020 before the next redistricting occurs.” - Indiana Democratic Chairman John Zody, strategizing his party’s comeback after Republicans forged super majorities in the Indiana House 
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