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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 - U.S. Steel, the company that built Gary, Ind., more than 100 years ago, once employed more than 20,000 people in Lake County. But that number has been declining since the late 1970s when the steel industry modernized and needed fewer workers to do the job. The employment level continues to decline – not so much because of modernization – but because of the unfair competition from foreign steel. As a result, the need for a diversified job market continues to grow in the self-proclaimed City of the Century, a label Gary adopted in the late 1950s. And that call for diversity may be on the brink of being answered. After years of delays and cost overruns, it appears the Gary/Chicago International Airport may be about to become a player in the greater Midwest air transportation network. Two federal grants totaling almost $6 million were announced by U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, this week. One of the grants is the 10th payment of a $50 million letter of intent issued in 2006 for runway expansion. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – There weren’t any real election surprises in Northwest Indiana during Tuesday’s primaries. But there were some impressive numbers for some winners, as well as failed attempts at comebacks. The numbers were pretty staggering in several of the contested Democratic mayoral primaries. In Hammond, Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who has aspirations for statewide office, was nominated for a fourth term, which would be the most for any mayor in that city. McDermott’s numbers were extremely impressive, particularly for someone who has had three terms to build enemies. The mayor defeated city Councilman Homero “Chico” Hinojosa, winning 78% of the vote. His impressive numbers rival some of those recorded by his father, Thomas McDermott Sr., who served as mayor as a Republican. Lake Station city Judge Christopher Anderson won the Democratic nomination for mayor, winning 78% of the vote. Anderson topped three others, including sitting Mayor Keith Soderquist, who is under federal indictment. One of the other candidates, Robert Getzmer, may have gotten a record low for mayoral candidates, pulling just six votes. In Gary, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson pulled 72% of the vote while topping four opponents. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Sometimes it is a fellow Republican, as opposed to a Democrat, who is the toughest on Republican Gov. Mike Pence. And for that Republican to be from Lake County is somewhat of a surprise. Such seems to be the case as the fallout continues over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. When Pence signed the bill into law, the vast majority of Democrats expressed outrage.The same could be said for a good number of Republicans. While Pence staunchly defended the bill, the criticism became too much, especially after his appearance on George Stephanopoulos’ Sunday morning political show, “This Week." When the heat got insufferable, Pence retreated and asked the Legislature to “fix” the bill, and he signed a “fix” into law. The Democratic outrage quickly ebbed, leaving the governor to think he had weathered the storm. But, he was mistaken. The governor found out this week when some 200 Republicans, many of them ministers, rallied in the Statehouse to condemn the governor for approving a “fix.” And the man leading the charge was the Rev. Ron Johnson Jr., the senior pastor at Living Stones Church in Crown Point. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – When Donna Harris was elected a week ago to replace her late husband, Earl Harris, in the Indiana House of Representatives, it certainly didn’t break any new ground. In fact, for wives to replace their husbands in elected office has been a tradition in Lake County for several decades. Rep. Earl Harris, an East Chicago Democrat, spent 33 years in the House before passing away last month. Precinct committeemen elected Donna Harris over Byron “Duke” Florence to replace her late husband. It’s always pretty much been a sentimental kind thing, whether the office being filled is on the local or state level. Whether Donna Harris was the most qualified for the job doesn’t really matter. The people wanted Earl’s wife to replace him. So, she will serve this year and next year and likely won’t run for a full term. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Is that all there is? The Republican-controlled General Assembly made a change to the “religious freedom” bill and Gov. Mike Pence signed it into law before beating it out of the country for a vacation. Is that it? It is signed, sealed and delivered and Indiana is all right with the world? Don’t bank on it. The fallout from this fiasco will live for a good while. Much of the ongoing reaction may not make headlines, but it will be there lurking under the surface. The question isn’t whether the fallout will come back to haunt those responsible, but rather when and how much. The presumption is that Pence’s presidential aspirations, regardless of how flirting they were, are now dead. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Never, perhaps, has a single issue brought such unity to Northwest Indiana as has the state’s so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Republicans, Democrats, business, industry, academia, the private sector and politicians in other states have come together to condemn the legislation signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Pence. Perhaps the most publicly damning act came from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sent more than a dozen letters to Northwest Indiana businesses urging them to move their operations to Chicago. “Gov. Pence’s act is wrong. It’s wrong for the people of Indiana, wrong for the individuals who will face new discrimination and wrong for a state seeking to grow its economy,” Emanuel said. Emanuel added that Pence is taking Indiana “back to the 1960s.” 
  • MERRILLVILLE - Lake County election officials are stepping out to find a cure for voter apathy. It’s something they have been doing at least once a year for more than a decade. Yet, the problem, they say, isn’t getting any better. Election officials said the statewide turnout for the 2014 primary was 13 percent. In Lake and Porter counties, the election folks said the turnout was a paltry 11 percent of the registered voters. The numbers, however, are deceiving. The election officials know that but won’t admit it. In Lake County, for instance, voter registration officials say there are 350,000 registered voters in the county. Given that the county has fewer than 500,000 residents, there can’t be 350,000 registered voters, unless the voting age has been lowered considerably.

  • MERRILLVILLE – There is one thing that separates Northwest Indiana Republicans from their colleagues in the rest of the state. When it comes to issues dealing with unions in general, the area Republicans tread lightly. While Northwest Indiana Republicans usually don’t win the endorsements of unions, they also don’t want to anger the members of the myriad of unions that populate this corner of the state. And the building and trade unions in Northwest Indiana rarely endorse a Republican over a Democrat, although it does happen. Such was the case with former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and the International Union of Operating Engineers. The Operating Engineers endorsed Daniels during each of his campaigns, largely because of his support for the construction of an interstate highway from Evansville to Indianapolis. The Operating Engineers also appreciated Daniels for his Major Moves program that was funded with the lease of the toll road. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – It would appear that Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. wasn’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when he announced his resignation as Lake County Democratic chairman last year. At the time, McDermott said he was stepping down because he was considering a 2016 run for statewide office, possibly for governor. If he were to seek statewide office, McDermott said, it could be a negative if he carried the title of chairman, given the history of public corruption. McDermott seemed to be suggesting that if he resigned as chairman that no one would remember that he once headed the Democratic party in the county. So, McDermott resigned and the precinct organization elected Sheriff John Buncich as chairman. There has been little mention since of McDermott running for governor or another statewide office. But last week, it became clear why McDermott stepped down as county chairman, and it wasn’t because of the county’s less than stellar reputation. The truth came out the day after the sentencing hearing for former Lake County Surveyor George W. Van Til in U.S. District Court. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Indiana Republicans are in lock-step on virtually every issue facing the state. But that wasn’t the case for Northwest Indiana Republicans last week when it came to legislation involving the Lake County Solid Waste Management District. And it was rather refreshing. At issue was Sen. Rick Niemeyer’s bill to require Lake County commissioner approval of any major decisions by the county’s Solid Waste Management District. Niemeyer’s proposal comes after the waste district came under fire for some questionable spending that amounted to less than $1,000. And Niemeyer and others are still angry about the attempt to open the Hickory Hills landfill east of his hometown of Lowell. Niemeyer’s bill made little sense in that there are 27 members, representing every municipality in the county, sitting on the waste district board. The membership includes appointees of the county commissioners and county council. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Given the Republican stronghold on the General Assembly, one might think that heavily Democratic Lake County might be out in the cold. After all, with Republican super majorities in the House and Senate and the GOP controlling the governor’s office, Democratic Lake County wouldn’t seem to have much of a voice. Well, that’s not exactly the case. And in fact, Democrats ought to be thanking hometown Republicans. Without the local GOP, Northwest Indiana Democrats would have much less of a chance of getting what they seek from the Legislature. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – What is it about the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly and Lake County? Heavily Democratic Lake County has no love for downstate Republicans. The controlling GOP has given Democrats reasons for harboring those feelings. And this session of the General Assembly is no exception. The Republicans already are dictating the direction of two pieces of legislation that are keys to the area, particularly Democrats. Foremost is the legislation to continue funding for the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. Most vital to that legislation is whether the state will renew its $10 million annual commitment to the authority. Gov. Mitch Daniels (yes, a Republican)  made that commitment 10 years ago when the RDA was founded through the efforts of state Rep. Chester Dobis, D-Merrillville, U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and Daniels. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – There was a time when Lake County Democratic mayoral primaries were as good as it gets when it comes to spectator sports.There were vicious battles across the county. The intensity largely was because the victor had an easy road ahead in the fall. And, of course, there was something special about having the word mayor in front of one’s name. Few can forget the campaigns pitting East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick and challenger Stephen Stiglich. Stiglich once served as Pastrick’s police chief and later won two full terms as sheriff after filling a vacancy. So competitive were the Pastrick/Stiglich mayoral primaries, that political consultant Chris Sautter filmed a documentary on the 1999 primary. The film, which won several awards, was named “The King of Steel Town.” Pastrick is retired and Stiglich died during heart surgery several years ago. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – It is less than a month now until longtime Lake County political figure George Van Til will be sentenced after admitting to using an employee to conduct campaign work on public time. Van Til, 67, is a former Highland town councilman, Lake County councilman and five-term county surveyor. He is considered one of the best legal strategists in the history of the county. Sentencing is slated for Feb. 12. Van Til, who is represented by former Gary Mayor Scott King, and the government filed briefs last week asking the court to be tough or lenient at sentencing. In conjunction with the filings, the court unsealed a host of letters written on Van Til’s behalf asking the court for leniency at sentencing. Several letters made reference to former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. Bennett, a Republican, left Indiana after losing his bid for reelection to Democrat Glenda Ritz in 2012. Not too long after leaving for Florida, Bennett came under fire for practices he employed in his Indiana office. Not only was there heavy criticism for his education policies, but also for the way he used some of his employees. It was learned that Bennett used some of his workers to conduct political activities while in the office on state time. Ultimately, Bennett was charged with an ethics violation as opposed to being criminally indicted. Bennett was fined $5,000 and sent on his way. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – I love Northwest Indiana. But I don’t see it becoming home to a National Football League franchise anytime soon. Probably never. So, I think this is one time I wouldn’t be terribly hurt if the General Assembly told the area to get lost. State Rep. Earl Harris, D-East Chicago, has directed the Legislative Services Agency to craft legislation to establish a Northwest Indiana NFL Commission that would be charged with bringing a professional football team from another part of the country to the region. The idea is for the commission to hire an executive director to organize NWI counties, economic development organizations and business and political groups to lure a team to the region. Yeah, sure, Earl. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Just when the state’s beleaguered Democrats needed a lift, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce delivered. When the chamber announced this week that its legislative priority will be making the superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than elected position, Democrats were aghast. While they likely won’t admit it, Democrats also were smiling. The Republican-dominated chamber had just given Democrats a solid campaign issue for 2016 when Hoosiers will pick a new governor and all 100 members of the House. But the chamber proposal put Republican lawmakers in a precarious position. The question is whether Republicans want to anger Hoosier voters or the state chamber. Neither is a good proposition. Republicans are still seething over the ouster of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett by Democrat Glenda Ritz in 2012. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Are Lake County’s fortunes about to rise in the Indiana General Assembly? Could it be that for the first time under Republican control in Indianapolis that Lake County will have a voice? Could it be that the GOP powers in Indianapolis may break from tradition and even listen to what the Republican legislators from Lake County have to say? Time will tell. But one thing is certain: Lake County will have its greatest Republican presence ever in the GOP-controlled Indiana House. Looking at the roster of House Republicans and Democrats, one would think the county was fairly evenly split. The lineup belies the fact that Lake County remains the most heavily Democratic in the state.  
  • MERRILLVILLE – The nationwide Republican onslaught impacted Lake County on Tuesday. But the GOP gains were offset by a critical loss. Republicans ousted two Democratic state representatives, Shelli VanDenburgh in District 19 and Mara Candelaria Reardon in District 12. VanDenburgh narrowly lost to advertising agency owner Julie Olthoff, and Reardon came close while losing to attorney William Fine. Republicans also retained the 15th House District seat with Hal Slager winning a second term over James Wieser. Democrats had targeted the seat. Each of the three seats was drawn by House Republicans following the 2010 Census. Reardon and VanDenburgh narrowly won two years ago but couldn’t withstand a heavy Republican vote on Tuesday. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – When incumbent Republican legislators started canceling debates with Democratic challengers a few weeks back, speculation was that they didn’t want to have to defend the GOP agenda on a number of levels. It now is becoming clearer that the issue that led to the Republican cancellations was education. Republicans have come under fire on a number of fronts when it comes to the education agenda. Democrats have criticized the GOP for freely shifting education money from public schools to charter schools. Democrats have rapped Gov. Mike Pence for his assault on Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, have expressed displeasure with Pence for forming his own education board at great expense to the taxpayers and have assailed Republicans for taking away many of the rights teacher unions have held over the years. Democrats have knocked the GOP for not doing something to improve the outdated school funding formula. And, the list goes on. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Talk about two tales of one city. Of course it is Gary, Indiana. The city had one of its proudest moments Wednesday night with the scheduled landing of  President Obama and Air Force One at the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Because of residual problems at O’Hare International Airport caused by a fire at the Aurora radar center last week, the president planned to land at Gary. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who is to greet the president today, had a different take on why Obama was landing in Gary, as opposed to Chicago. “We feel and hope it is because of the convenience of Gary’s location to Chicago,” the mayor said. “We are, after all, the third airport for the Chicago area.” 
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  • Gov. Pence regrets not being a 'better listener'
    “I certainly learned — again — that I’m not perfect. If I have a regret, I regret that we didn’t spend more time listening before the bill got to my desk. My ambition is to be a better listener. I support religious freedom. I also oppose discrimination. I was raised to do unto others, what you would have them do unto you. Those are core principles for me. If I had thought it was about discrimination, I would have vetoed the bill. I meant that to my bone marrow.” - Gov. Mike Pence, to the IndyStar’s Tim Swarens. Asked about the coming push to expand the state’s civil rights code to include sexual orientation, Pence gave no definitive answer. It is an issue that is poised to greatly complicate his coming reelection bid. 

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