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.
Although Mara Reardon won back her seat in the Indiana House, Lake County Democrats didn’t have a good election. Consider that Shelli VanDenburgh narrowly lost to Julie Olthoff in her bid to win back her seat in the House. And, despite an influx of money, Thomas O’Donnell lost by a couple thousand votes in his bid to oust state Rep. Hal Slager, a Schererville Republican.
On the local front, Democrats lost one of the three county commissioner seats for the first time in two decades.
Republican Jerry Tippy dumped five-term Commissioner Gerry Scheub, who is 81 years old. Ernie Niemeyer, the father of state Sen. Rick Niemeyer, was the last Republican county commissioner. Rick tried to replace his father as commissioner but lost to Scheub.
It is little solace for local Democrats that the main reason the Republicans fared well in the county was because of gerrymandering by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
What’s also hurting Democrats is the structure of the party. It may be at its lowest point in decades. A couple weeks after the election, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich was indicted on allegations that he took kickbacks on towing contracts.
While the charges clearly are a problem for Buncich, they also signal bad news for the Democratic Party in that Buncich also is county chairman.
There is no indication that Buncich will step down as chairman prior to the regularly scheduled county convention in March. If ever the party needed a strong chairman, it is now in that a good bit of rebuilding needs to be done in the wake of the Nov. 8 election.
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?

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. He is a columnist for The Times of Northwest Indiana.