GARY — Jerome Prince’s campaign headquarters was swinging two hours after the polls closed without any help from the requisite DJ.
Prince, unlike many candidates who hide in a back room away from the crowd until he can make a dramatic appearance with a victory announcement, was mingling with the crowd, posing in their group photos and brimming with optimism as the voting returns flowed in Tuesday night.
Darnail Lyles, a veteran trial lawyer and a Prince supporter, brandished a handwritten tally from campaign workers, yet to be posted on the county election board’s website, showing Prince leading in almost every precinct.
The crowd spilled onto the sidewalk outside the Glen Park neighborhood storefront on Broadway. A woman driving by shouted out, “Did Prince win?”
The answer came less than an hour later, as Prince took the stage. As he was thanking his supporters, he stopped to tell everyone, “I have Karen on the phone.”
Within moments, he sent the crowd into raptures. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson had conceded his victory.
As of Wednesday, the final — but still unofficial — tally has Prince winning over the incumbent mayor 6,967 to 5,418.
It's an advantage of nearly 10 percentage points.
Prince said he and his family were still enjoying the buzz Wednesday afternoon as he gathered his thoughts about the coming transition period.
“I’m excited for myself, family and our residents," Prince said. "I think they were looking for new direction, and the numbers have proven out we were right. The challenge is to bring that to them.
“I’ve got a big job ahead of me. I think I’m up for the challenge. I’m going to assemble the right group of like-minded folks around me and keep the politics as far away from the business end of this as possible. I think I’ve proven in 20 years I can do that and still be effective."
Prince currently faces no opponent in the Nov. 5 general election. The Republican Party and other minor parties and independents have until the end of June to request a ballot slot for the fall.
But Gary's Democratic stronghold gives Prince, who is currently Lake County's elected assessor, a virtual lock on the office.
His county government friends filed into the pandemonium Tuesday, including Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, Lake County Auditor John Petalas and Sheriff Oscar Martinez.
“We have great days ahead for the city," the sheriff said. "I have somebody I can work with.”
Incumbent mayors rarely suffer defeat.
Lake County voters Tuesday chose East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland and Hobart Mayor Brian Snedecor over their challengers. Meanwhile, Crown Point Mayor David Uran, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura were unopposed.
But Prince pulled off what many political insiders believed was an unlikely outcome.
Prince entered the mayoral race just before the deadline earlier this year with only a few thousand dollars in his campaign coffers, while Freeman-Wilson acquired donations in six-figure amounts.
Prince said after he became assured he could line up enough money to put up a serious fight, he was all in.
“I’ve been in office for 19 years and established a pretty good track record of taking care of business, and timing is everything," Prince said.
“There was tremendous opportunity for improvement. I think the residents just didn’t feel they were connected to government or felt the benefit of the resources the city already had been using."
He said the campaign mined information from Gateway, the state government-run database on local government spending, and advertised what they found.
“I believe that resonated more than anything because people began to ask questions about, 'Where have the resources gone?'
“It was the mayor’s responsibility to answer that,” Prince said.
Gary City Councilman Ronald Brewer Sr., who won Tuesday, said Prince hit a nerve.
“The voters were expecting some things to happen at a faster pace than they did," Brewer said. "I think their patience ran out.”
State Rep. Regan Hatcher, D-Gary, said Prince inherits the same challenges and opportunities Freeman-Wilson had.
“Gary, no matter who is at the helm, is in a good position — especially with the good work done in the Legislature with the casino move and that the new casino will boost the economy of the city," Hatcher said. "The challenge remains the lack of property tax collection."
Prince said communication with his constituency will be key.
“I will need to articulate to our residents constantly our work and where we are financially," he said.
Prince said he intends to remain in office as county assessor until the end of this year.