Scandal and dissension racked Lake Democrats
Dec 30, 2016
CROWN POINT — It was a hard year for local Democrats.
Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen died unexpectedly Jan. 6 after 20 years in public service. A Democratic Party caucus Feb. 3 crowned Gary City Councilman Kyle Allen as his successor.
Marissa McDermott further surprised the party in late January by announcing she would mount a rare challenge to a sitting judge and unseat incumbent Lake Circuit Court Judge George C. Paras.
Her appearance on the spring ballot set off a rancorous inter-party debate.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., the prior Democratic county chairman and Marissa McDermott's husband, chided 70-year-old Sheriff John Buncich, the current Democratic Party chairman, for a lack of party support for its youngest stars.
McDermott said it should be backing 40-year-old Marissa McDermott. Buncich rejected that story line, arguing Paras, 67, and other, older Democratic candidates were just as deserving of votes.
But Marissa McDermott's use of social media and her husband's overflowing political and financial wherewithal — $110,000 from his political war chest — staged an upset victory over Paras in May.
One party veteran had reason to cheer
George Van Til, 68, finished his 18-month federal prison term mid-year. He earlier had pleaded guilty to six counts of fraud alleging he assigned political work to his public employees in the county surveyor's office.
The summer saw the obligatory departures of town and city council members on the losing side of a fight over a new state law making it illegal to be both an elected official and employee of the same government unit.
The ban fell on Susan Pelfrey, a New Chicago councilwoman and water department manager; Michael Opinker, a Hammond councilman and fireman; Juda Parks, an East Chicago councilman and policeman; and Matthew D. Claussen, a Hobart councilman and police officer.
They sued in federal and state court, but couldn't convince a judge to overturn the law as an unconstitutional burden on their political activities.
Opinker surrendered his 5th District Hammond City Council seat, and a Democratic Party caucus selected David Woerpel, as his replacement. Pelfrey left her council seat to her daughter, Tara Pelfrey.
Parks vacated his East Chicago City Council at-large seat, and Democratic precinct committeemen named Ronald London, his successor. Matthew D. Claussen's Hobart City Council at-large seat passed to Dan Waldrop.
A giant of Lake County politics
Robert Pastrick died Oct. 29.
He was the longest-serving mayor in East Chicago history — from Jan. 1, 1972, to Dec. 31, 2004, and county chairman of the Democratic Party for a quarter of a century, but his last two elections were tainted by voting irregularities that resulted in convictions of city and party officials.
Pastrick never faced criminal charges, but a federal judge did brand Pastrick’s administration as corrupt and ordered Pastrick and former political allies to pay $108 million in damages in 2011, forcing Pastrick into bankruptcy.
Democratic control of county government suffered a body blow in the Nov. 7 general election when Republican Jerry Tippy defeated Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub.
Scheub's 20 years of experience in office couldn't overcome a Republican-inspired redrawing of commissioner district borders that robbed Scheub of much of his former voter support.
The biggest stunner of the year took place Nov. 10 when the FBI and state police raided the Lake County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff John Buncich's home for records of county police-ordered towing.
Only a week later, U.S. Attorney David Capp announced the indictment of Buncich, Tim Downs, the sheriff's second in command, and a Lake Station towing firm owner on allegations Buncich solicited bribes and campaign contributions.
Capp soon disclosed Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, was cooperating with the government as a witness to payments he made to Buncich. Jurgensen hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing.
Downs gave the government further ammunition earlier this month when he pleaded guilty to doing political fundraising for Buncich, under Buncich's order, while on duty and using a publicly provided police car.
Downs admitted he has been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise of leniency.
Rumors and damage abound
McDermott said the party's reputation has suffered collateral damage from the indictment.
The year was ending in the midst of unsubstantiated rumors about more public corruption indictments or a quick exit of Buncich as sheriff and Democratic county chairman.
Buncich remains in both posts, but the party is scheduled to elect a new boss in an all-county caucus of committee members in March.
Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington was spared having to resign from office in early December when a special prosecutor dismissed felony domestic violence charges against him.
He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and invasion of privacy over a dispute with two women, one of them his wife, at their Merrillville home.