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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 – 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.” 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Indiana Democrats need to pick up three seats in the House to break the Republican supermajority. They would need to gain four seats in the Senate to end the GOP supermajority there. Holding the supermajority means the party in power can do whatever it sees fit. The minority party, in essence, doesn’t have a voice to affect or stop legislation. If Democrats are to break the Republicans’ stranglehold of the Legislature, they will have to do it in the House. There is general agreement they can’t do it in the Senate. There also is general agreement among Democrats that one of the three seats they must win is the 15th House District where Rep. Hal Slager, a Schererville Republican, is the incumbent. Challenging Slager is Democrat Jim Wieser, a former Highland town councilman and Lake County councilman and longtime party advisor. 
  • 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.  
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  • Romney nixes 2016 presidential run
    “After putting considerable thought into making another run for president, I’ve decided it is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee. I did not want to make it more difficult for someone else to emerge who may have a better chance of becoming the president.” - 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, announcing Friday morning he will not run in 2016. Jeb Bush had lured several key Romney operatives and donors in the days preceding the announcement. 

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Will Jeb Bush's looming 2016 presidential candidacy preclude a run by Gov. Mike Pence?


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