MERRILLVILLE — It has been three decades since Lake County has had one of those in-your-face Democratic mayoral primaries. One has to look back to the contests between Mayor Robert Pastrick and challenger Bob Stiglich for the last heated race in East Chicago.

In Gary, one has to look back to the last few challenges to Mayor Richard Hatcher, who finally was defeated by Thomas Barnes in 1987.

Look no further.

A Gary politician and one from East Chicago have lighted fires under the politically stagnant landscape in Northwest Indiana. Within minutes of the close of filing last Friday, John Aguilera filed for East Chicago mayor against incumbent Anthony Copeland, the city’s first black mayor, who is seeking a third term.

Aguilera long has been a popular Hispanic politician in a city that is majority Hispanic. He served from 1994 to 2000 as a Lake County councilman and then spent six years as a state representative. He ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer last year. While Aguilera promises to be a formidable opponent for Copeland, Jerome Prince promises to be an even stronger opponent for Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Prince has been one of the most prominent Gary politicians over the last two decades. Prince served as a city councilman from 2000 to 2008. From 2008 to 2014, Prince was a Lake County councilman representing Gary. Most significant for Prince is that he has been chairman of the Gary Democratic Precinct Organization since 2016. Prince currently is in his second term as Lake County assessor. Prince has served virtually without controversy in each of his elected positions. He didn’t draw an opponent in his reelection for county assessor.

While Freeman-Wilson has been a fairly popular mayor, the city has amassed millions of dollars of debt under her leadership. Freeman-Wilson also has lived with a financially top-heavy administration while the city’s population has plummeted. The unemployment rate in Gary has remained high as the crime rate continues to be the city’s largest obstacle to attracting business to the city.

The fact that there are eight challengers, including three women, is expected to be a benefit for Prince. 

Rich James has been writing about politics and government for 40 years. He is retired from the Post-Tribune, a newspaper born in Gary.