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Thomas McDermott Jr. and Frank Mrvan

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan

HAMMOND — Buckle up, Northwest Indiana voters — you're already on board for a wild election.

Within minutes of U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, declaring Wednesday he will not seek reelection next year to a 19th term, two Hammond Democrats announced their campaigns to succeed him — with many more candidates still likely to come.

In the race are Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who already had been eyeing a Democratic primary challenge to the Region's long-serving congressman, and North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan.

Neither wasted any time in trying to distinguish himself from each other, and, to some extent, from Visclosky.

McDermott, 50, said he's running to change Congress and the hyperpartisanship that he said is causing the national legislature to be “dysfunctional,” “ineffective” and “not good for America.”

“We're the best country in the world and we better start acting like it,” McDermott said. “Washington D.C. is broken. They need people like me because I'll go in there and try to fix it.”

The four-term Hammond mayor, who won reelection to a fifth term Tuesday, said he would model his House service on the bipartisan, problem-solving example set by former U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.

“Just because I'm part of the Democratic Party doesn't mean I can't work with the other side. I will. I want to work with people on the other side. I want to change the culture in Washington D.C.,” McDermott said.

“I don't want to go there and just investigate and try to bring down the president, whoever the president is. It may be a Democrat, it may be a Republican, I want to support the president and get stuff done.”

Specifically, McDermott said he is “100%” committed to continuing Visclosky's efforts to secure federal funding for the expansion of the South Shore Line from Hammond to Dyer in west Lake County, and the double-tracking of the existing commuter rail line between Gary and Michigan City.

He said he'd also try to take the Region's rail connection to high-wage Chicago jobs even further by extending the West Lake corridor south to Lowell and constructing a spur off the main line to Valparaiso.

“I'm going to fight for the South Shore,” McDermott said. “It's a project that's well down the tracks already and I'm going to jump on board where Congressman Pete left off.”

People focus

Mrvan envisions similarly carrying on a top Visclosky priority if he's elected to the U.S. House: supporting and protecting organized labor in Northwest Indiana, particularly in the steel industry, as well as aiding other Region residents in need.

The 14-year township trustee said he excels at bringing people together in North Township, which covers Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Highland and Munster, and wants to do the same for all residents of the 1st Congressional District.

"I've looked in the eyes of people who don't know where to turn when they lose employment, and I've helped them get through those moments," Mrvan said.

He acknowledged in Congress he generally would be removed from the type of direct assistance he now provides.

But Mrvan said in Washington he could ensure Northwest Indiana continues to have a good economy, along with advancing transformative projects giving people more reasons to move to or stay in the Region, such as the South Shore Line.

"Ultimately, we want to be able to provide the greatest amount of mass transportation to be able to get to the second or third largest economy in the world — Chicago," Mrvan said. "We also have to look at public transportation as far as buses to get people to the train."

"All that has to have a vision, and you have to be able work with all communities and be able to know what their vision is and their strategic plans."

Frank Mrvan

North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan

He said that's a different approach than McDermott, whose combative style occasionally has been known to rub people the wrong way.

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Mrvan, 50, said his other priorities in the House include ensuring economic stability, promoting good jobs, supporting quality education, funding school safety initiatives and impeaching President Donald Trump.

"Everything that I've read and researched, I believe that impeachment is the total process," Mrvan said. "The concept that it is going to stall progress in Congress, they really haven't gotten anything done anyway over the last three or four years. So I think that's a myth."

Open race

McDermott almost certainly enters the contest as the front-runner given his preparation toward challenging Visclosky in the primary; a fact Mrvan admitted in describing the campaign as a “David vs. Goliath” scenario.

At the same time, Mrvan said anything can happen when there's a race with no incumbent, and this is the first open seat election in the 1st Congressional District since Visclosky won in 1984.

“We're all starting fresh,” Mrvan said. “So everyone has to build upon the relationships that they have, hopefully strengthen them, and be able to move on upward and onward.”

"This is something I have always wanted to do. I have prepared myself my entire career by caring about people, by looking out for children, by being there when the unions were on strikes. There are multiple ways that I have proven that I care about our district."

McDermott said he's confident the plans he made to launch a primary challenge to Visclosky, including a campaign logo that he posted online Wednesday and an established campaign headquarters in Hammond, will give him the momentum needed to prevail against anyone who enters the race.

Tom McDermott

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. speaks at the grand opening of the new Hessville Skate Park on Aug. 15.

“I'm way ahead of the game as far as any other opponents that are going to run against me,” McDermott said.

“It was the worst-kept secret in Northwest Indiana that I was planning to run. I wanted to run against Pete because I think I would have beat him. But obviously, with him not running, it's a totally different race now.”

It's too soon to say how many other candidates will compete to represent the district, which includes all of Lake County, Porter County, and western LaPorte County.

Valparaiso lawyer Jim Harper, the 2018 Democratic secretary of state nominee, said he's "strongly considering" making the race.

"It's obviously a really important decision that our Region is going to make and so I'm going to take a little time to think about it," Harper said.

State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, who once worked in Visclosky's district office, also is eyeing a campaign.

"Continuing to serve my community at the national level would certainly be a privilege," Candelaria Reardon said. "Congressman Visclosky is not easily replaced, and, as such, a decision to run would take much thought and discussion with family and friends."

In Gary, state Rep. Ragen Hatcher, who previously announced a bid to succeed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eddie Melton in the Indiana Senate, said she's now also considering a congressional run.

"All options are on the table," Hatcher said.

While the 1st District is heavily Democratic — it last was represented by a Republican in 1931 — the Region potentially could see an experienced Republican candidate also run next year, since he or she won't have to compete against Visclosky.

According to the secretary of state, filing for the race opens Jan. 8 and closes Feb. 7. The primary election is May 5, 2020.

Election Day: Complete Region results

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