Lake County Council

Lake County Council members David Hamm, far left, and Elsie Franklin at a 2013 council meeting.

With the passing of Lake County Councilwoman Elsie Franklin, the local Democratic Party will soon have to find a replacement for one of its most experienced political leaders.

Franklin, who represented the council’s 2nd District, died early Monday after a years-long struggle with various health problems.

Over her long career in local politics, Franklin accumulated a deep reservoir of influence and institutional knowledge. She served on the county council for 16 years and as the chairwoman of the Gary Democratic Precinct Organization for nearly a decade until 2015.

The challenge for Democratic leaders will be to find a replacement who can approach Franklin’s cachet with 2nd District residents and her understanding of how the county council interacts with municipal governments. They also have a narrow window in which to do it.

By statute, the county clerk must formally notify Lake County Democratic Party Chair Jim Wieser that the 2nd District seat is vacant. Wieser then has 30 days to organize a caucus of precinct committee members, who will vote on a replacement.

As of Friday morning, Wieser had not received notice from the clerk’s office, he told The Times. If the notification comes Monday, the caucus will have to be held by June 12, he added.

Wieser said local Democratic leaders have not approached him about any specific candidates to take Franklin’s seat. He expressed confidence that Gary Democrats had a deep enough bench to find a capable replacement.

“I have no doubt, knowing the strength of the Gary precinct organization, that there are clearly qualified candidates,” Wieser said. “I just don’t know yet who will step up.”

The 2nd District vacancy comes as the political power structure in Gary is poised for an overhaul. In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince beat Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, while two city council incumbents were defeated and another two declined to run for re-election.

Prince, who is also the chairman of the Gary Democratic Party, told The Times he has heard from a number people who’ve expressed interest in filling Franklin’s seat. He declined to elaborate, saying he wanted to gather more information over the weekend before discussing the issue any further.

Gary precinct members may hold most sway

In any case, Gary precinct committee members are likely to have the most influence over who is chosen to replace Franklin, owing to their majority in the 2nd District. But because the district also comprises several precincts in Griffith and unincorporated Calumet Township, committee persons there could play a decisive role if the field of candidates becomes crowded.

The roster of potential candidates won’t begin to take shape until after a May 15 meeting of party chairpersons, according to Griffith Democratic Party chairman Michael Ball. The vacancy has already sparked widespread interest, he said.

“I’ve already heard from four people that want to throw their hat in the ring,” Ball told The Times, declining to identify any of them by name.

Ball went on to say that Democratic Party insiders he has spoken with expect the field to grow to as many as 10 candidates by the day of the caucus. If it does, Gary-based hopefuls will need the support of the Griffith precinct organization to win, he said.

“This could be an interesting one,” Ball said. “That vote is going to splinter in Gary and Calumet Township (with so many candidates).”

The search for Franklin’s replacement remains in a speculative phase, but some Lake County Democrats are predicting the eventual winner will be an ally of Prince, whose influence within the party is on the rise after defeating Freeman-Wilson.

One name that has been floated is Calumet Township board President Darren Washington, an experienced political operative who publicly backed Prince’s campaign. Washington is also close with Franklin’s family, giving him a built-in advantage with her 2nd District supporters.

Reached for comment Friday morning, Washington said he had no comment other than to “ask for continued prayers and blessing for the family of Councilwoman Elsie Franklin during this time of bereavement.”

“I love her and will miss her dearly,” he said.