EAST CHICAGO | Jubilant supporters swooped up Anthony Copeland on their shoulders seconds after he was declared East Chicago's new mayor Saturday.
The city's first black mayor, Copeland downplayed the significance of what many described as a historic event.
"You'll have to take that up with my God, what color I am. I am a native son of the city of East Chicago," Copeland said. "I don't look at it that way because I am East Chicago."
Yet, Copeland added, his election by precinct committeemen indeed was significant in that it shows the diversity of the community and that anyone can rise to be the city's top executive.
With all 36 Democratic precinct committee members present Saturday morning, Copeland was voted mayor by a seven-vote margin over City Council President Richard Medina.
Copeland received 21 votes to Medina's 14 on the first ballot. The lone remaining vote went to former state Rep. John Aguilera, who earlier had criticized the candidacy of Medina, an ally of former Mayor George Pabey.
Copeland will serve out the remaining 14 months left in the term of Pabey, ousted last month when convicted on felony corruption charges. City Controller Charlie Pacurar had filled in as mayor.
Copeland and Aguilera are announced candidates for next year's mayoral election, though Aguilera said Saturday he will be reviewing his options for the May 3 Democratic primary.
A former city councilman and former chairman of the city's Democratic organization, Copeland told followers he was elected mayor on the anniversary of his mother's death.
"I know she's smiling down on me," he said. "I see a sea of opportunity."
After being sworn in by Lake Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Arredondo, Copeland said his first act will be to go to City Hall, get down on his knees and ask for the wisdom to get things done.
He declined to name his top priority as mayor, saying, "One day at a time."
Though he lost, Aguilera said it was a good day for East Chicago as Copeland's election set the city moving in a new direction that was needed.
"There's no question about it," he said. "We had isolated ourselves as an island.
"I have to make decisions going forward," he said of his own candidacy. "I'm leaving my options open."
"As my speech indicated, I did not see this current administration or (Medina) as an option," Aguilera said. "Mr. Copeland and I are very similar in terms of our philosophies on government."
Also elected Saturday were the leadership of the city's Democratic organization.
That the caucus would undertake electing officers wasn't widely known before Saturday.
City Councilwoman Myrna Maldonado took the chairmanship over Lake County Councilwoman Christine Cid.
Copeland recently had won the support of a majority coalition of the City Council, which included Maldonado.
Other officers elected were Jesse Gomez, vice chairman; Christine Russell, secretary; and Frances Nowacki, treasurer.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter championed Copeland as a true community activist and "the right man at the right time."
"Anthony Copeland is a person who really loves this city," Carter said. "He's not a politician. He's a person who genuinely wants to see this East Chicago grow."
Carter, who also is black, said Copeland's selection may represent a milestone for the African-American community, but he will represent all.
"It's really about people," Carter said, adding Copeland has enjoyed more support from Hispanics than blacks over the years.