CROWN POINT | Gary officials said they were busing in hundreds of high schools students to vote in advance of the May 6 primary as a learning experience.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton denounced it Wednesday as a shameless political power play.
"To me it seems like an orchestrated effort on behalf of the Obama campaign to take kids who should be in school learning to read and write, instead giving them a day off and telling them to vote for Obama.
"When you corral kids together and ship them to polling places, it's completely unethical. I think Sen. Obama should distance himself from this type of behavior," McDermott said.
Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's Hoosier campaign, responded, "Those comments don't reflect the facts and shouldn't we be applauding our schools for encouraging our children to get involved in their civic duties?"
Isabel Bonilla stood at the back of line of Gary's West Side High students Wednesday morning waiting to vote. The 18-year-old shyly explained, "I'm excited. It's my first time to vote." She declined to say who she would favor with her ballot.
She was among about 200 students from West Side and William A, Wirt high schools driven in several Gary school buses more than 16 miles to the Lake County Elections and Registration Board office here. Early in-person voting began last week.
Elections Board Director Sally LaSota and Lake County Elections Supervisor Michelle Fajman said Gary school officials notified them last week all high school students registered to vote would be bused to Crown Point this week.
LaSota said they wouldn't turn away potential voters of any age. Fajman said, "Students don't have time before school opens on election day to vote and they have extracurricular activities at the school. I think it's a good idea."
McDermott, whose city hosted Hillary Clinton's March 28 visit to the region, disagrees. "These kids come from the worst performing schools in the state of Indiana and we are giving them a day off to go vote for Obama. They can vote on election day like everybody else."
Gary School Board Trustee Darren Washington said, "This is a very adequate and educational field trip to go see the voting process and have time to actually vote. It is a learning process for government economics, which is a mandatory requirement to graduate."
Washington said Lew Wallace students have been bused to Crown Point to vote for three years now. "The entire board thought this was a great idea. We told (Dr. Mary Steele-Agee) to make sure all the high school seniors are able to go out and vote.
"Whatever the cost of gas, for helping a young person exercising their right to vote, that is a cost I don't think anybody on this board or the state would have a problem with."