VALPARAISO -- In less than an hour Saturday, Porter County Democrats gave Valparaiso attorney Robert Harper a landslide caucus victory and a position as the next county commissioner.
Harper received 64 of the 75 votes turned in by eligible party precinct committee members. After receiving only 11 votes, his opponent, Norm Hudson, expressed disappointment, but wished Harper well.
"Eleven people thought along the same lines as I do," Hudson said. "I'm disappointed. We had dramatically different ideas on how Porter County should be run."
Within minutes of the caucus, Harper -- flanked by party Chairman Leon West -- took his oath of office in front of Porter Superior Court Judge Bill Alexa at the American Legion Post.
Harper replaces Larry Sheets as the Center District county commissioner and will serve out the three years remaining on Sheets' term. Sheets died in September after struggling to overcome leukemia.
As party members swarmed Harper following the vote at the Porter County Administration Center, shaking hands and offering congratulations, the visibly excited commissioner-elect said he had felt confident about his chances, but did not expect such a lopsided vote.
"It's hard to know ... there's always little surprises going on, so you never know what's going to happen," he said.
West, on the other hand, said the vote did not surprise him at all. West supported Harper for the position and had asked Hudson to forget about the commissioner job and focus on winning election to the Valparaiso City Council, where he is also a candidate.
"We tried to guide Norm in the right direction, but he didn't go," West said. "I don't think it hurts his chances ( in the council race). I think Norm can win that seat."
Party precinct captains packed the room at the Administration Center to cast their votes. Each candidate was given two minutes to speak, a time limit Hudson immediately objected to, saying the office was too important for such time constraints prior to a vote.
Regardless, in the time allowed, Hudson pushed his agenda of economic development, new jobs and county growth in terms of both businesses and population. He said Harper's ideology was the antithesis of development.
"Picking (Harper) will ultimately mean fewer or no jobs for Porter County residents," Hudson said, adding "precinct captains, don't bury your heads in the sand today."
Harper countered, saying he is not against growth, but rather development that contradicts the county's master plan and jeopardizes quality of life in the process. Harper's stance seemed more in line with controlled growth and ensuring development does not destroy areas where residents live.
"I am not against growth," Harper said. "I am against the builders in this county violating zoning ordinances."
Harper noted he has been active in the party for decades and continued to follow county government closely even after defeating Sheets in the 1994 primary election, only to lose in the general election.
During the caucus, the two candidates sat stoically on opposite sides of a first row pew as one party member read the ballots aloud and another tallied them. In a matter of minutes, it became clear Harper would win the post.
Afterwards, Harper said he and Hudson are friends and colleagues in the Democratic party, and he has no hard feelings. Instead, Harper said, the party must shift its focus back to the upcoming municipal elections, which include Hudson's race.
Following the vote, Harper said the county's land use plan has "basically been thrown out the window." One of his goals will be to enforce that plan, he said. And while his law practice keeps him busy, Harper said he will devote the time needed to the commissioner job.
David Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (219) 462-5151, ext. 346.