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HAMMOND | Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said Friday he is stepping down as Lake County Democratic Party chairman to run for higher office someday.

"I plan to run for re-election for mayor and will be on the ballot in the city of Hammond in 2015. As far as what I'm planning on down the road, being county chairman would conflict with that," he said.

He didn't deny speculation Friday he may eventually run for governor.

His departure is tentatively set for June 28, when he plans a caucus for all county precinct committeemen to elect his replacement.

Early speculation for Lake County Democrat Party chairman is centering on: Lake County Clerk Mike Brown, Sheriff John Buncich, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, County Commissioner Mike Repay, and Randy Palmateer, business manager for the Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council.

"I will definitely put my name in there," Repay said Friday. "McDermott has done an exceptional job being the chairman and has put us in a position for the next thing. So the question is, what's the next thing? Is it something new, or do we go back? I think I represent more of what Chairman McDermott has put forward."

Palmateer said he is considering a run for chairman. Brown, Buncich and Freeman-Wilson didn't return calls for comment.

McDermott, who has served five years as party boss, made his announcement Friday on WJOB where he regularly talks politics, and on his Facebook page.

He said he wanted to knock down any speculation his departure signals any kind of distress, saying he's been considering it for more than a year.

He said when he began working as the party chairman, it was in the red. Now it has $1 million in the bank and no debt while Democrats are getting elected.

"I was thinking to myself I should get out while I'm on top. I accomplished everything I tried to do. It is 100 percent my decision. Anybody who says otherwise, that's trash," he said.

Democrats have ruled Lake County politics for several generations, most recently under the leadership of former East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick, the late Stephen R. Stiglich and the late Rudy Clay.

McDermott, 45, the son of former Hammond GOP Mayor Thomas McDermott Sr., switched parties in 2003 to run as a Democrat for Hammond mayor and won then and again in 2007 and 2011.

He unseated Clay as party chairman in 2009. McDermott's statement on Facebook credits party cohesion under him to his creation of the Lake County Democratic Party’s Governing Board, a 60-member board of representatives from all of Lake County’s cities and towns, including organized labor.

"Prior to my taking over as chairman, people from smaller cities and towns in Lake County felt that their voice wasn’t being heard regarding the direction and decisions made by the county party," he said.

He said he was able to heal breaches between the party and organized labor.

And he said, he will work to keep it healed.

"If there is one thing I can really take credit for, it's that Lake County Democrats are at peace. The thing I'm afraid of is that this would result in a big melee. I'm going to rise above it and referee a tough fight."

McDermott said Friday he almost didn't run for re-election as chairman last year

"I was burned out then," he said. "I found that being chairman was a problem for me representing the city of Hammond downstate. I felt we got special attention from the Republican super-majority who don't like Democratic chairmen."

McDermott said it was never his goal to be the party's chairman, noting he did it to help the party and feels that all if its people "are in good places." He said he plans to stay active in politics, but admits Hoosiers downstate have misgivings about politicians from Northwest Indiana.

"If I was going to take a step and run for higher office, it would be a problem for me if I was campaigning in southern Indiana because people across the state, unfortunately, have a negative image of Lake County and especially Lake County Democrats. They will doubt you because of that title."

Lauri Harvey Keagle contributed to this story.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.