MERRILLVILLE – Perhaps it’s the substantial salary. Perhaps it’s the power. Perhaps it’s all about ego. Whatever the reason, there isn’t a local election in Lake County that draws more interest than the race for sheriff.
The lineup generally takes shape in the fall before the May Democratic primary. Republicans rarely count in countywide elections in Lake County, but this year, the Democratic sheriff’s primary already has taken on its primary look, perhaps the final formation.
And the primary has much the same look as it did in 2010. The only substantial difference is that there is an incumbent sheriff today. There wasn’t four years ago. Sheriff John Buncich topped Richard Ligon and Oscar Martinez in the 2010 primary. There were several other candidates who received votes but had little chance to win.
Buncich was elected sheriff in 1994 and 1998, but couldn’t seek a third term because state law limits the sheriff to two consecutive terms. Roy Dominguez was elected sheriff in 2002. Buncich tried to a comeback in 2006, but narrowly lost to Dominguez. Buncich made it all the way back in 2010 and now is seeking a second consecutive term.
Many around the state remember the name of Buncich’s legal advisor, both during the first two years and today. Former state Sen. John Bushemi has been a close ally and attorney for the sheriff’s department since Buncich came into office.
Buncich is an enigma of sorts when it comes to Lake County elected officials. When he first left the sheriff’s department he was riding high in terms of popularity and could have run for, and probably won, another county office.
The late Sheriff Stephen Stiglich was elected county auditor after being sheriff. The late Sheriff Leslie O. Pruitt was county auditor and treasurer besides being sheriff. But Buncich, a career police officer, said his only interest was in law enforcement and declined seeking other county offices.
Ligon spent his career working as a postal inspector for the U.S. Postal Service. He pretty much disappeared from public view after losing to Buncich. When Karen Freeman-Wilson was elected Gary mayor in 2011, she named Ligon the city’s public safety director.
Ligon oversaw the city’s police and fire departments. Why a city of 80,000 needed – or could afford – a public safety director is anyone’s guess. Likely because of budgetary problems, Logon didn’t last long and his position was eliminated.
Martinez is a sergeant with 20 years on the county police department. He made a name for himself by stopping drug couriers headed to and through Lake County from Mexico. His efforts resulted in the seizure of large amounts of narcotics and cash.
So successful was Martinez at one point that some local folks felt he had connections in Mexico who were tipping him as to when drug couriers would be coming through the area. He complained when Buncich earlier removed him from the interdiction task force.
Buncich will enjoy the backing of Lake County Democratic Chairman Thomas M. McDermott Jr., who also is mayor of Hammond , Lake County’s most populous city, according to the 2010 Census.
Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. He is a columnist for NWI Times.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013