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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 – 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.
  • MERRILLVILLE – If the voters reject Donald Trump and Mike Pence on Nov. 8 – and it appears that they will – is there a political future for either man? I can’t imagine that there will be for Trump, who has been an embarrassment for the Republican Party. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will even be a place for Trump in the Republican Party of the future. Pence is another matter. There are political commentators across the country who have speculated that Pence would go after the GOP presidential nomination in 2020. After all, Pence has looked presidential during this campaign. It doesn’t too much matter that he hasn’t sounded presidential. If Pence wanted a future in presidential politics, he should have distanced himself from Trump. Pence would have done well to reject Trump’s notion that the election was being stolen from him. Pence should have rejected the notion that the media had the ability to steal an election, as Trump claimed. And, Pence should have rejected Trump’s claim that America no longer is prepared militarily.
  • MERRILLVILLE – When the 30-day rule kicked in around Northwest Indiana last week, it became increasingly clear who was tagging his wagon to whom. Most area communities have adopted an ordinance limiting the placement of political yard signs to the 30 days prior to an election.Those ordinances lately have come under fire and there is a move afoot to get rid of them. Lake County Commissioners Attorney John Dull recently said the ordinances are unconstitutional. Until the ordinances are wiped away, municipalities seem to be adhering to the 30-day provision. Accordingly, the yard signs sprouted last weekend and it is interesting to note whose signs are being paired. At the heart of the matter is John Gregg, the Democratic candidate for governor. It’s interesting whose signs appear with Gregg’s. There are Gregg and Shelli VanDenburgh signs together as well as Gregg and Tom O’Donnell signs side by side.
  • MERRILLVILLE – There were many who thought Northwest Indiana would fall apart in 1976 when Adam Benjamin defeated longtime U.S. Rep. Ray Madden, who was an institution in Congress. Actually, things got better for the Region because of Benjamin’s legislative brilliance and ability to get along with elected officials on both sides of the aisle. When Benjamin died of a heart attack on Labor Day weekend in 1982, there were many who thought the Region wouldn’t be able to recover from a second blow. After enduring two years of  U.S. Rep. Katie Hall, Northwest Indiana got it right in 1984 when it elected U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky to Congress. Visclosky, who was on Benjamin’s staff, discovered his body in his Washington, D.C., apartment. It pretty much has been all good since. Within two years, Visclosky found his way onto the House Appropriations Committee where he continues today.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Judging by the initial comments from Lake County government officials, it’s going to be a long time before a substantial convention center is built. Talk of the convention center has escalated since it was announced that the Radisson Hotel and Star Plaza Theater will be razed later this year and early next year. A new hotel is planned, but there won’t be any convention facilities to replace those that will be eliminated. Speros Batistatos, the president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, has proposed the imposition of a 3-percent food and beverage tax to help pay for the new facility. Such a tax would have to be approved by the Lake County Council and Commissioners. The large convention centers around the state, including one in Indianapolis, are funded in part with food and beverage taxes. Lake County government officials essentially said they want it all but don’t want to pay for it.
  • MERRILLVILLE –  While the latest poll shows Democrat Evan Bayh leading Republican Todd Young by four percentage points in the race for the U.S. Senate, the margin likely is much different in Northwest Indiana. For two generations, this corner of the state has been Bayh country. It began with Birch Bayh, Evan’s father, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962 and reelected twice. Birch Bayh, of course, lost a 1980 bid to become the first Hoosier to be elected to four terms in the Senate, falling victim to the national push in 1980 to throw out the most liberal from the Senate. Bayh’s loss, of course, had a substantial impact on history, in that he was defeated by Dan Quayle who went on to become vice president. The senior Bayh had a host of backers in Northwest Indiana, particularly then-East Chicago Mayor Robert A. Pastrick, who had a knack for turning out huge Democratic pluralities on Election Day. If Pastrick wanted something out of Washington, Bayh provided it. In fact, it was Pastrick who was on hand to greet Evan Bayh when he made his first Northwest Indiana appearance after announcing he intended to seek the Senate seat both he and his father formerly held. Besides Pastrick, the senior Bayh was the darling of labor unions who controlled the Region politically until their numbers began to dwindle in the 1980s.
  • MERRILLVILLE – It is becoming increasingly clear that Griffith doesn’t want anything to do with Gary. Even though the two Lake County municipalities abut each other, Griffith seemingly wants to build one of those walls Donald Trump wants to erect along the Mexican border. First it was Planned Parenthood. When the agency was about to lose its facility in Gary, it located property in Griffith for its new headquarters. But Griffith Councilman Rick Ryfa led the charge and blocked Planned Parenthood from moving into his town. And then Ryfa and the rest of the town council, which is controlled by Republicans, launched a move to have Griffith pull out of Calumet Township. The Griffith officials said they were tired of paying for public assistance to help the poor people in Gary. Calumet Township is made up of Gary, Griffith and unincorporated Calumet Township. With 39 percent of Gary residents below the poverty line, most of the township assistance money is going to Gary. Griffith residents at one point were paying about $3 million a year for public assistance. That now is down to about $1 million annually.
  • MERRILLVILLE – If Lake County Democratic Chairman John Buncich has said it once, he’s said it a hundred times. “We can’t take four more years of Mike Pence,” is Buncich’s standard line. With Labor Day just a few days away, Lake County’s once dominant, but still powerful, Democratic Party is ready to launch the two-month campaign leading up to the Nov. 8 election. But, of course, it won’t be Pence who Democrats will be facing. But that doesn’t matter to Buncich, who doubles as county sheriff. “You look at (Eric) Holcomb and you see Pence,” Buncich said of the lieutenant governor who is Pence’s replacement on the ballot for governor. Holcomb, in fact, has vowed to campaign on Pence’s record. The fall campaign will culminate with a late October victory rally at the Greek Hall in Merrillville with some 800 expected to attend. U.S. Senate candidate Evan Bayh, governor candidate John Gregg and the rest of the state ticket will headline the rally.
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