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Tuesday, May 23, 2017
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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 –– The Gary Air Show – or I should say the lack of it in recent years – has become a joke. It was announced this week that there won’t be a show in Gary on the shore of Lake Michigan this year. The same was the case in 2013 and 2014. The cancellation this year is because Gary can’t afford the $350,000 needed to provide the support to make the event a reality. Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she was unable to find a corporate sponsor. The mayor had a year to secure the money and apparently was unable to do so. And I can understand why firms like U.S. Steel Corp. and the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. wouldn’t want to pony up the money. Speros Batistatos, the president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said the loss of the show is devastating because of the hundreds of thousands of people it attracts. Batistatos’ organization used to be one of the sponsors of the show and lost $1.4 million over a nine-year span.
  • MERRILLVILLE –  Although he has been on the campaign trail for about eight months, Schererville Police Chief David Dowling formally launched his bid for Lake County sheriff a week ago. Dowling is looking to become the first chief of a small town to become Lake County sheriff. He spoke briefly to a sizable crowd at the Andorra Banquet Hall in Schererville, and he had two very noteworthy things to say about the race. Perhaps the most interesting is that Dowling said he will retire from the Schererville Police Department prior to the 2018 Democratic primary. He didn’t elaborate as to why he would retire, but one got the feeling that he wanted to be unencumbered during the last few months prior to the election. I suspect that it also makes Dowling look like a very serious candidate in that he will give up his current job while hoping to win a new one. And if he didn’t win the sheriff’s post, he would pretty much be without a job.
  • MERRILLVILLE – One of the biggest problems facing police officers in Northwest Indiana – and across the country for that matter – is that the flow of narcotics isn’t going to stop. As hard as they try to catch the drug dealers and the mules who transport the narcotics, it isn’t a winnable battle. But you have to give the police credit for trying; they do take narcotics and drug dealers off the streets. But while police are making an impact, 91 people are dying every day from drug overdoses across the country. It is an especially serious problem in Northwest Indiana. Lake County last year had 63 heroin deaths, while 20 died in Porter County from opioid overdoses. And those dying aren’t the bad guys. They are the victims. Schererville Police Chief David Dowling knows there need to be changes in law enforcement’s approach to opioids. “We all understand the opioid epidemic has gotten so bad that this isn’t a problem we can arrest our way out of,” Dowling said.
  • MERRILLVILLE – The case involving Lake County Sheriff John Buncich seemingly gets more bizarre by the week. Buncich, who is in his fourth term as sheriff, was indicted in November on bribery charges. His latest trial date is Aug. 7, but even that may well get continued. The most interesting twist came a week ago when the sheriff issued a press release proclaiming his innocence. While Buncich entered a not guilty plea when charged, last week was the first time he made a public comment. The sheriff issued a press release through his attorney, Bryan Truitt. Buncich said, “I assure you that I am absolutely innocent.” He went on to say, “For those of you who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges. Trust that I would never sell my office, not for any amount.” Why the sheriff issued such a statement five months after the indictment has raised some eyebrows. Some say it simply is a matter of looking for support in the court of public opinion before he goes to trial.
  • MERRILLVILLE – There probably isn’t another Johnny V. pounding the political paths anywhere in Indiana. He was one of a kind. And everybody liked Johnny Visclosky. But Johnny V. is what everyone called him. He passed away a week or so ago at the age of 101. He was mayor of Gary in the early 1960s when Mayor George Chacharis went to prison. Johnny V. (pictured, right) was city controller at the time and became mayor because there wasn’t a deputy mayor. He chose to serve only until the next election and gave way to A. Martin Katz. Gary was a huge vibrant city at the time with some 180,000 people calling the Steel City home. There was little crime and anyone wanting a job simply had to knock on the door at U.S. Steel. Johnny V. stayed active in politics, helping people in his beloved Gary. And everywhere he went, people glad-handed the man who knew how to make things happen. While he may have been mayor, he came to be best known as the father of U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Why does Lake County keep embarrassing itself smack dab in the middle of the General Assembly? No wonder downstate Republicans are often unwilling to give Lake County money when folks come hat in hand. I and others have sometimes criticized the state for giving Lake County the cold shoulder. But, alas, I can’t criticize the state for what it is about to do. Some Lake County towns and cities are about to mess up the work U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has done for the last three years to bring South Shore Railroad’s West Lake Corridor to reality. Visclosky has worked doggedly to get 20 Lake County municipalities to commit at least a third of their County Economic Development Income Tax over the next 30 years to building the nine-mile rail line. Now, Merrillville has voted to reduce its pledge from 22% of its CEDIT to 8%.
  • MERRILLVILLE – One of the most famous political slogans came from Lord Acton way back when. Acton, of British descent, said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have the feeling those words are emblazoned on the walls of the Republican Senate caucus in the Indiana General Assembly. I think we might be able to say the same about the Hoosier House of Representatives as well. But they don’t seem to care. With Republicans controlling both chambers by wide margins, they apparently think they can do just about anything they want legislatively. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb seems to have the same train of thought. At issue is the bill to take the office of the superintendent of public instruction out of elective politics and allow the governor to appoint the secretary of education. The bill was written by Holcomb. But, much to his surprise, the Senate killed the bill on Feb. 20 on a 26-23 vote. So, that was the end of the grand conspiracy to take over the office of the education superintendent.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Election after election, Lake County Democrats deliver for the party. They did so last November, but the massive vote totals were overshadowed by the losses of each of the Democratic statewide candidates. The Nov. 8 results were fairly typical; Lake County Democrats delivered a huge plurality, but the party suffered big losses on the state level. And yet, the strongest county Democratic party in the state doesn’t received any respect, according to Jim Wieser, the newly elected county chairman. “We don’t have a strong voice in the state,” Wieser said shortly after taking over as chairman. That lack of respect, Wieser said, has to change. And, he sees a couple of ways to make that happen. One way is for the party to make regular stops in Indianapolis to “pound on the door.” The party, Wieser said, needs a bigger voice in shaping statewide policy and elections, including a larger role for Lake County’s Young Democrats, a group that outgoing Chairman John Buncich energized.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. don’t especially like each other. That’s not about to change any time soon. That disdain was emphasized in the days leading up to last Saturday’s election of a new Democratic county chairman. The two candidates for the job were Hammond’s Mike Repay, a county commissioner, and Schererville attorney Jim Wieser. Wieser and Repay campaigned for more than two months to win the favor of 523 precinct committeemen and their vice committeemen. But the campaign came down to the final three days. On Thursday, Buncich, the outgoing chairman, sent a letter to the committeemen and their vices. In the letter, Buncich essentially said he had been the only effective county chairman in recent years and said the party should elect Wieser as his replacement. The only problem is that Buncich replaced McDermott as chairman, and the Hammond mayor took that as an insult. The timing couldn’t have been better for McDermott, who has a show on local radio every Friday morning. McDermott used his time on the radio that morning to slam Buncich. And the Hammond mayor also lashed out at Wieser for accepting the support of Buncich, who is under federal indictment.
  • MERRILLVILLE – I’ve never had any great love for Portage Mayor James Snyder. He didn’t level with me when he first ran for mayor against incumbent Olga Velasquez. Snyder won, in part because of the misinformation he spread about the police department, leading some to fear for their lives. During the campaign, Snyder said he would consider keeping police Chief Mark Becker and would give him an interview. He never did. Becker was a retired FBI agent when hired by Velasquez. He was about the best any city could hire as a police chief. Portage hired Becker after Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson refused to do so. That probably is the biggest mistake she has made since becoming mayor. Gary’s crime problem is legendary. Becker knew Gary better than any because of his experience heading the Gary Response Investigative Team while still with the FBI. Freeman-Wilson said her police chief had to be a Gary resident. Becker was not. Since her refusal to hire Becker, Gary has gone through a host of police chiefs. Back to Snyder, who is under federal indictment for fraud. Now, I have to defend Snyder. The City Council, which is Democratic, wants Snyder, who is Republican, to resign from office because of the pall hanging over the city because of the federal indictment. Snyder is refusing, and I don’t blame him for not stepping down.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker plans to retire sometime this spring. Rucker, a Gary native, and I met some 37 years ago when he was on the campaign trail. He was bright, good looking and it seemed like his future was going to be bright. But, it didn’t start out too well. Rucker decided to run for judge, Lake Superior Court, County Division, in 1980. I guess they called them small claims court judges back then. His opponent in the Democratic primary was East Chicago native Steven Bielak, who, like Rucker, was an upcoming judicial and political star. It was quite a primary, and in true Lake County tradition, the mud flew freely. Bielak’s handlers insisted on newspaper ads depicting the two candidates, and many of the ads contained photographs of the two candidates. And, because Bielak was white and Rucker was black, it became a very racist campaign. And the unbecoming photo of Rucker seemed to have come from a police lineup. At the time, black candidates didn’t win primary elections for countywide offices in Lake County. And, Rucker didn’t become the exception. Bielak trounced the man who seemed to have a leg up in terms of qualifications.
       
  • MERRILLVILLE – It’s not too often that Lake County Republicans gain the upper hand on the county’s Democrats. In fact, Republicans haven’t won a countywide election for more than 60 years, except for Hank Adams’ victory for county assessor a decade ago. It was, however, hard to call that a Republican victory in that many county Democrats were vocal supporters of Adams because of legal problems plaguing Carole Ann Seaton, the Democratic nominee. Adams is deceased and Democrat Jerome Prince, a rising star in party politics, is the assessor. But, back to the GOP, who have Democrats over a barrel. Republicans four years ago had Democrats reeling when the Legislature approved a bill ordering the elimination of all Lake County precincts with fewer than 600 registered voters. Democrats as a stalling tactic took the matter to court. It worked as the legislation expired.
  • GARY – The annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Gary is more than just a tribute to the great civil rights leader. It also is one of the biggest political events held in the Steel City. For Gary politicians, the breakfast is an opportunity shore up support within the city. For the outsiders, it is an opportunity to reach out for the backing of Gary’s heavily Democratic vote. Some of those attending the Jan.14 event said it may have been the first time they have seen long-time suburban Democrat James L. Wieser in attendance. Wieser is a Schererville attorney. He has worn a number of political hats during his 40-year political career in Lake County. He has served on the Highland Town Council and the county council.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Perhaps it was only fitting that President Barack Obama gave his last national address within a stone’s throw of Indiana. He never referred to the state by name, but some of his references about the future could well have been promoted by Hoosier history. Obama’s talk was essentially a civics lesson as he encouraged people to revisit the same political roots that got him elected. “Democracy is threatened when taken for granted,” the president said. Obama talked about the U.S. Constitution being a wonderful document but is little more than a piece of paper. “We the people give it power,” Obama said. And then his hour-long civics lesson hit home in Indiana. “We should be making it easier, not harder, to vote,” the president said. Almost a decade ago, Indiana made it more difficult to vote when it passed the voter ID law that requires a voter to show a government photo ID before being allowed to vote.
  • MERRILLVILLE –  I guess the reality hasn’t set in. For the life of me, I still can’t embrace the fact that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will soon be vice president of the United States. After all, it was a mere eight months ago that Pence launched his campaign for reelection as Indiana’s governor. And, at the time, things didn’t look especially promising for Pence, who had drawn the ire of a number of groups around the state. Among those groups was the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Pence denied state civil rights protection to the LGBT community. Pence’s stand set off a firestorm across the nation as several organizations cancelled conventions in Indiana. That national response drew the ire of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which issued a rare criticism of Pence. Pence’s stand on a number of pieces of legislation also drew the wrath of the state’s teachers and labor organizations. And, in Northwest Indiana, Pence was widely criticized for not directing enough money to that corner of the state, especially in terms of road projects, including the rebuilding of the Cline Avenue Bridge.
  • MERRILLVILLE – It seems like yesterday, but alas, it has been 20 years since the first casino opened in Northwest Indiana. It was June, 1996, when the Majestic Star Casino opened in Gary. A day or so later, Trump Casino opened its doors adjacent to the Majestic Star. Showboat Casino soon followed in East Chicago, with the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City and Empress Casino in Hammond rounding out the five casinos in the northwest corner of the state. They, of course, were competing with a couple of casinos just to the west in Joliet, Ill. It seems hard to imagine at this point, but the Joliet casinos were charging admission when they first opened. There is something wrong with having to pay to gain the right to lose your money. With the gambling industry still relatively new in Lake and LaPorte counties, already there is trouble on the horizon. And those likely to suffer the most are the Gary, Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City casinos that opened with the intent of returning luster to the industrial rust belt in that corner of the state. Now, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians has started construction on a second Four Winds Casino in South Bend.
  • MERRILLVILLE – There are some Lake County Democrats who are reluctant to talk about the future of the party. At least they are reluctant to talk on the record. The party is at its lowest point in decades, considering what happened Nov. 8 and has happened since. The two strongest party leaders over the last half century are gone. Stephen R. Stiglich, who served as county sheriff, died a decade ago while heading up the party. And, longtime chairman Robert A. Pastrick passed away a couple weeks ago just short of his 89th birthday. The only other chairman in recent years was Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. Buncich was elected chairman when McDermott stepped down. He said being chairman could hurt his planned run for governor. Yet, McDermott is riding high as his lock on Hammond continues to get stronger. And in the May Democratic primary, his wife, Marissa McDermott, ousted Lake Circuit Court Judge George Paras. Marissa McDermott, a political newcomer, acknowledged that her victory was a result of her husband’s name-recognition. So, the McDermott name is riding high. Could 2020 be the year Thomas McDermott actually runs for governor as opposed to just talking about it?
       
  • MERRILLVILLE – Lake County’s traditionally weak Republican Party thinks it can now play with the big boys. County GOP Chairman Dan Dernulc and others think they did a heck of a job during the Nov. 8 election. Not so fast. Republicans lost a state representative race they had won two years ago, but they did win a seat on the county board of commissioners, something the party hadn’t done in 20 years. Lake County Republicans haven’t grown as much as they would like you to think. It’s not that they have made the gains on their own. That’s hardly the case. No, Big Brother in Indianapolis gets the credit for making it possible for Lake County Republicans to make some advances. They craftily drew districts to favor Republicans following the 2010 Census.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Democrats across the country took a hit during Tuesday’s election, but nowhere was it felt more than in Northwest Indiana. NWI had the most riding on the Indiana governor’s race. Democrats in that corner of the state were high on John Gregg, the party’s candidate for governor. Just as he couldn’t overcome the plurality of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, Gregg couldn’t make up for Donald Trump’s huge plurality this year. According to NWI Democrats, Gregg was to be the area’s link to Indianapolis and the massive amounts of money resting in state coffers. Gregg made a considerable number of stops in the area, hoping to raise money and energize the region’s Democrats. Lake County Democratic Chairman John Buncich, who also is county sheriff, led the push for Gregg, working hard to bring out the area’s huge union vote. While the region’s vote for Gregg was substantial, the pluralities of the past were diminished by the unexpected turnout for Trump and the residual effect for Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Holcomb.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Politically speaking, East Chicago was the capital of Indiana during the 33-year career of Mayor Robert A. Pastrick. Statewide candidates coveted his endorsement. Republicans feared his power. Democrats bathed in the city’s massive voter turnouts. Pastrick, who left office in 2004, passed away Oct. 28. He would have been 89 later this month. Pastrick loved his native East Chicago where he served as city controller and city councilman prior to being elected mayor. He was elected mayor nine times until losing to George Pabey in a special election in 2003. His only other political loss was a bid for secretary of state. Besides the residents of East Chicago, Pastrick was rich in close friends. Foremost among them was the late James Knight. Knight not only was city controller, but also advised Pastrick on a number of key interests, both governmentally and politically. Had Knight still been living, there are those who contend the sidewalk scandal of 1999 never would have happened.
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