Long before a federal indictment rattled the political power structure in Lake County a week ago, the 2018 campaign for sheriff was well under way.

The indictment of Sheriff John Buncich shocked many, including myself. He has been a strong sheriff since starting his second stint as the county’s top cop in 2011.

But the very sound of the word indictment does crazy things to those in political circles. It’s like a shark sensing blood in the water.

Lake County Auditor John Petalas was a calming voice last week when he said, “Everybody who knows him is holding back to see what has really happened.”

When it comes to the 2018 Democratic primary for sheriff, no one is holding back — at least privately.

The indictment has jump-started the inevitable. There are two possible paths for who becomes the next sheriff.

If a vacancy occurs, the county’s precinct committeemen and vice committeemen will select the next sheriff.

If nothing happens until the 2018 primary, Democratic voters will decide. Republicans, who haven’t won a countywide office for almost 70 years, need not apply.

Speculation is all over the board, including the return of former Sheriff Roy Dominguez.

That’s not going to happen in that Dominguez left office under a cloud when his second in command, Joe Kumstar, and other cops were indicted and convicted on gun-dealing charges.

There are two guys wishing the best for Buncich but are in the midst of running sheriff campaigns for 2018.

One is former county Councilman Thomas O’Donnell, who was planning to run for sheriff. But those plans were derailed earlier this year.

In its quest to win back the Indiana House, state Democrats convinced O’Donnell, a Dyer resident, to make a second bid for state representative against Rep. Hal Slager.

O’Donnell narrowly lost to Slager in 2012. With a loose cannon like Donald Trump heading the ballot, Democrats thought down-ballot races were ripe for picking. It was pretty good logic at the time.

O'Donnell lost, and there is a feeling now on the part of some that the party owes him its backing if he runs for sheriff. He told some that if he lost to Slager, he would be a sheriff candidate.

Then there is Schererville Police Chief David Dowling, who has been campaigning for sheriff for a good while.

He has campaign cards that read, “Responsible leadership. Quality policing.” It’s hard to argue with that. Dowling is a solid guy.

Whether it’s O’Donnell or Dowling, it would be the first time the county has picked a sheriff with roots in south county. It would signal a shift in the political power structure.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjamescolumns@gmail.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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