MARC CHASE: Wary voters snuff out possible corruption smoke

2014-05-08T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Wary voters snuff out possible corruption smokeMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
May 08, 2014 12:00 am  • 

First the bad news: Lake County estimates show less than 13 percent of registered voters bothered to visit the Tuesday primary polls.

Then the good news: Those who voted — particularly in a couple of township trustee races — apparently have been paying attention to a kind of smoke arising from both offices.

The core differences between the two offices — the Calumet Township and Winfield Township trustees — couldn't be more different. Yet issues of taxpayer trust have been looming over both incumbent trustees in recent months.

On Tuesday, these issues of trust — or rather, its violation — apparently resonated with voters.

Incumbents have high probabilities of winning to begin with. So why would this year of low voter turnout, a factor almost always favoring incumbents, result in the unseating of two longtime office holders in north and south Lake County?

Conventional wisdom would have dictated a victory Tuesday for Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin, a Gary Democrat in charge of one of the state's largest and most impoverished townships, and Winfield Township Trustee Roland Brauer, a Republican leading one of the state's smallest and reasonably affluent townships.

So why their losses? Perhaps it was the presence of smoke alerting enough voters to the potential fires of corruption burning in both offices.

Elgin couldn't live down the image of an FBI evidence truck parked outside her office in March while federal agents seized boxes of evidence and at least one computer during a probe of which the purpose has not yet been disclosed. Her opponent also had the endorsement of Gary's mayor.

At her campaign office Tuesday, Elgin told me she believed the federal raid was all a political ploy to hurt her candidacy. She said the facts will show she did nothing wrong.

But her troubles went beyond that. In 2013, Griffith Republicans and Indiana House Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, pushed through a state law requiring Calumet Township to reduce its exorbitant poor-relief tax rate or face the possible exodus of Griffith to another township.

Rather than working with state and local leaders, Elgin filed a lawsuit, contesting the 2013 law. I suspect this resonated poorly with her constituency in both Gary and Griffith.

Her opponent, Democratic primary victor Kimberly Robinson, now must ensure she fulfills her promise to ditch the lawsuit, control spending and extend an olive branch to Griffith if she wins in the November general election.

In south county's Winfield Township, Republican primary winner Paulette Skinner also promised reforms on her way to unseating GOP incumbent Trustee Roland Brauer.

In the months prior to the election, Brauer was caught using a township-owned SUV for apparent personal use. Skinner has promised to sell the SUV — and pay for her own vehicle, gas and insurance — if she wins the fall general election.

Despite a low voter turnout Tuesday, change occurred, apparently prompted by incumbent performance — or lack thereof.

Now it's up to the winners to carry forward their promises of cleaning house. It's up to the voters to hold them to it.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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