CROWN POINT — Last month's conviction of former Sheriff John Buncich for public corruption changed the fortunes of Oscar Martinez Jr.
Prior to Buncich's indictment, Martinez, 47, was preparing to run for sheriff in 2018 with the history of a candidate who had twice run for the office and twice finished third behind Buncich and former federal agent Richard Ligon.
He had won headlines in the past when he and other drug interdiction officers busted drug couriers and seized narcotics and drug profits until the interdiction unit was dismantled, Martinez said.
But last week, county officials addressed Martinez as sheriff. He was naming his command staff, accepting congratulations and promising changes that only an incumbent officeholder can make.
The U.S. District Court jury that found Buncich guilty of accepting bribes from towing firms, also caused him to be removed from office and triggered a Sept. 16 caucus, where precinct committee members were to name someone to serve the remainder of Buncich's unexpired term.
Schererville Police Chief David Dowling, retired federal agent Richard Ligon and other candidates argued that only an outsider like themselves could provide the fresh leadership the devastated sheriff's department needed.
But many in the crowd of more than 400 committee members roared their approval of Martinez the moment he was introduced at the caucus and chose him from among nine candidates after three ballots.
Lake County Auditor John Petalas, a veteran of Democratic politics, said the secret to Martinez's success was that, "Oscar just kept campaigning all those times he ran and kept meeting more and more committee members.
"I think (Dowling's) problem is that he was a newbie. But he was in the hunt until McDermott decided to support Oscar," Petalas said. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.'s Hammond precinct organization endorsed Martinez just before the caucus. Martinez said he believes that put his caucus support over the top.
Now Martinez has to prove himself again to the public at large.
Martinez said last week, "I started immediately. I met with people in my command staff the day after the caucus in the sheriff's office and started immediately putting people in place to win the trust of the community."
Diverse field planning spring rematch
He can expect a rematch that likely will include Dowling, Ligon and Lake County Deputy Commander Daniel Murchek.
Dowling said he still has to sit down with his supporters and assess his future.
"It is just unfortunate that some of political leaders and activists decided that business as usual is OK," Dowling said. "I don't think it's OK. I've been the change candidate, the reform candidate for the sheriff of Lake County, and that is what I will continue to do.
"The caucus went three (ballot) rounds, so there was no clear-cut winner. I did have 170 people out of about 390 on the final round. I think that is encouraging."
Dowling said he will continue to push for accreditation of the Lake County Sheriff's Department. "There are a lot of very good, very qualified, very professional people there. What I want to do is professionalize the department, and accreditation is one of those ways," Dowling said.
Ligon said his defeat in the caucus doesn't faze him. "I could have predicted everything that happened. It doesn't matter. I am focused on dealing with the public and the public is upset." Ligon said.
"An outsider can come in and do what you are supposed to do without worrying whether you are loved or hated by the others because of what you have done in the past."
Murchek said, "I'm working with the current sheriff now, but I'm still running in 2018. That election will be much different than the caucus."
Lake County Clerk Michael A. Brown has expressed interest in running next year. Former Sheriff Roy Dominguez declined to comment on whether he would run in May.
Downplaying politics, planning changes
Martinez, a county police officer since 1993, said he isn't waiting until May. "It's about doing the right thing now and getting the job done for the people of Lake County today."
He said he started by his choice of commanders. "Not one single person in my command staff was involved in my campaign. I'm keeping politics out of it," he said.
Buncich used some of his closest administrators to solicit campaign contributions from towing firms that depended on the sheriff for their livelihoods, according to testimony at his public corruption trial.
Martinez said, "Now I'm surrounding myself with great people I've worked with for 24 years. They've worked with the FBI GRIT task force, worked in intelligence, worked in investigations. People who are as passionate for the department and the people as I am."
"We are re-evaluating the jail," Martinez said. The county jail has been under a U.S. Department of Justice mandate for seven years to improve health care for county inmates.
"I can tell that there are going to be changes, but we have to be sure the changes we make are done correctly and for all the right reasons to ensure we get out from under this," he said.
Martinez said he is resurrecting the county drug interdiction unit to help stem the rising tide of heroin overdoses in Lake County. "We are going to be in Gary and other cities and towns that ask for our services and resources. There is a lot of fixing to do," he said.