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Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince

Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince

Gary mayoral hopeful Jerome Prince stirred some discontent within the city’s Democratic Party Precinct Organization by selecting, then replacing, a precinct captain with a checkered political past to oversee the party’s endorsements for the May 7 primary elections.

Prince, the chairman of the Gary Democrats, said he “initially” considered giving responsibility for leading the endorsement process to Carol Ann Seaton, the party’s 5th District precinct captain.

But Prince later decided to go in a different direction, appointing a trio of local Democrats to manage the endorsement vote, which is set for Saturday at the Genesis Convention Center in Gary. Prince made the decision “a few days ago,” he told The Times in an interview Friday.

“I’ve adjusted,” Prince said. “Carol Ann is not overseeing the process. In fact, she’s not part of the process at all.”

The Democrats now overseeing the endorsement vote come from outside the Gary precinct organization. The panel is composed of Reynae Manley, the deputy director of strategic initiatives for the Service Employees International Union; Bill Emerson Jr., the Lake County surveyor; and state Rep. Carolyn Jackson, D-Hammond.

An undated letter announcing the details of the endorsement vote bears Seaton’s signature, according to a copy obtained by The Times. It asks recipients with any questions or a need for clarification to contact Seaton on her mobile phone. The letter is postmarked March 7, according to a recipient who spoke with The Times.

Seaton did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

As a candidate for Lake County assessor in 2010, Seaton became the first Democrat to lose a countywide election in a half-century amid scandal over her residency status and illegitimate property tax exemptions.

Shortly after that loss, the County Council removed Seaton from her seat on the Board of Tax Appeals, citing disclosures that she illegally held driver's licenses in both Michigan and Indiana. She also faced scrutiny over allegations she improperly claimed homestead exemptions on her Gary home.

Seaton’s past legal and political troubles should have precluded her from consideration in the first place, said Gary 6th District Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, who is running against Prince and seven other candidates to unseat Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Sparks-Wade questioned why Mary Brown, Gary’s 3rd District councilwoman on the City Council and vice chairwoman of the Gary Democrats, was not allowed to oversee the endorsement vote. 

“That’s my concern,” she told The Times. “Our party has suffered enough public corruption. We are trying to regain the the public’s trust, and I question Mr. Prince’s decision-making and judgment.”

Prince defended his original inclination to put Seaton in charge of the endorsement vote.

“She’s an elected precinct committeeperson, and she works harder than anyone in that organization,” he said. “She has the right to participate.”

Prince said Brown would have been an inappropriate choice to oversee the endorsement vote because she is running for re-election as councilwoman. He declined to comment when asked if Seaton’s past indiscretions were a factor in his decision to appoint the three outside Democrats instead.

Another point of contention has arisen over which Gary Democratic precinct committee members will be permitted to vote on the endorsements. Lake County is reducing the number of voting precincts from 523 to 353 this election season, pursuant to an order from the Indiana Election Commission. The consolidation includes about half of Gary’s 105 precincts.

According to Seaton’s letter, “approximately 50” people are eligible to vote at Saturday’s meeting, meaning those committee members whose precincts were consolidated cannot vote at the endorsement meeting.

Sparks-Wade, who is one such committee person, said the Gary Democratic organization is still allowing those precinct committee members-in-name to vote at caucuses. But it’s unfair they won’t have a voice when it comes to endorsing this year’s slate of candidates, she added.

“I’m really pissed off,” Sparks-Wade said. “This is my second time as a precinct committeeperson, and he is disenfranchising us.”

Prince defended the decision to exclude the precinct committee members who have been consolidated, arguing state party rules suggest they should only have input when it comes to a caucus vote.

“The ones who remain as precinct committeepersons in name only, their only participation is in the instance of a caucus,” Prince said. “But this not a caucus, it’s an endorsement. A caucus is to elect one person, this is about endorsing an entire slate of people.”

While Prince’s decisions with respect to the endorsement process have drawn fire from some Gary Democrats, they don’t run afoul of any party rules, according to Lake County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Wieser.

“Folks think there are rules over the party that address this issue, and there aren’t,” Wieser told The Times, noting that Lake County is alone among Indiana counties in having both city and county party chairs.

As a result, city party organizations are typically given wide latitude to manage their own affairs, Wieser said. That includes how they endorse candidates in primary elections.

“They do it pursuant to their own guidelines,” Wieser said, adding that he thought Prince’s decision “was the appropriate thing to do.”

Prince speculated the discontent over his moves in the Democratic precinct organization had been stirred up by his opponents in the mayoral race.

“These folks are trying to muddy the reputation I’ve built over the last 19 years,” he said.