Cal Township trustee race steeped in history, acrimony
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/302-0949 April 25, 2014 9:12PM
Gary City Councilwoman Mary Elgin (left) is challenging incumbent Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin in the Lake County Democratic primary. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 28, 2014 6:22AM
The Calumet Township trustee Democratic race between incumbent Mary Elgin and Gary City Councilwoman Kimberly Robinson is steeped in political history and a healthy dose of acrimony.
Still, the eventual winner faces a bigger struggle for the township’s credibility and survival.
The two candidates don’t hide their disdain for each other.
The bitter contest unfolds against the backdrop of a federal raid last month at Elgin’s Gary office and a new state law that could lead to secession by the town of Griffith, whose officials blame their bloated tax bills on township spending.
That backlash from Griffith was bolstered by state Republicans who tried unsuccessfully in 2011 to dismantle township government after decrying excessive and uneven spending by trustees across the state. Calumet Township was in the crosshairs of that focus and it’s not likely to escape GOP scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Gary’s political heavyweights have a stake in the race. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has tossed her support to Robinson while Elgin, who’s seeking her fourth term, has close ties and support from the Hatcher family.
Robinson appears to be the frontrunner, winning endorsements handily from Gary’s precinct organization (60-13) and Griffith’s (23-0). The salary for the trustee’s job is $88,000.
Elgin’s chances may have been hindered by a March 27 raid by FBI and Internal Revenue Service officials who left with boxes of evidence and a computer.
“I know I haven’t done anything wrong, stole money, or forged anything,” said Elgin, a retired steel union official. “It’s unusual for them to come in right before an election and try to influence it. I have no idea of what they were looking for. They just show up, make a scene and leave.”
In her campaign ads, Elgin blames the raid on Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who she said pushed 2013 legislation that could allow Griffith to secede from the township.
Both Robinson and Freeman-Wilson deny involvement in the raid.
“I did not call anybody, people think I called or Karen called,” said Robinson. “I was just as surprised and shocked as anyone else. I just wanted to run a clean and fair race.”
After the raid, Elgin stepped up her attack on Robinson. “She’s not a leader. She has all these titles, but what has she done?” Elgin said.
A former Gary City Court probation officer, Robinson is chief of staff for Lake County Treasurer John Petalas and has been on the City Council since 2008.
“Kim has proven herself on the council,” said Freeman-Wilson. She said Robinson has asked tough questions of her administration. “She has a track record of fiscal accountability.”
Elgin said she launched her first campaign because of concerns over the way eight-term trustee Dozier Allen’s office treated indigent clients. “People were standing outside, the buildings were deplorable. People were dissatisfied,” Elgin said.
Robinson, who has a degree in social work, said people still wait in long lines for services, an issue she says she can fix. “I started looking into the issues and workings going on there and decided I could do better.” She wants to cut costs by eliminating services, possibly job training, that are duplicated elsewhere.
Elgin takes credit for streamlining the office, although paltry tax collections and property tax caps forced her hand. When Elgin took office, there were 230 trustee employees. She said there are about 77 today.
She also said the township operates with just two take-home cars, one that she drives and the other driven by her chief deputy. Both vehicles are 10-years old or older, she said.
“I brought this township out of the “Dozier” era, the corruption and the way the clients and employees were treated,” said Elgin, who often mentions Robinson’s connection to the former trustee and Robinson’s term on the township board when Allen was trustee.
Robinson’s mother, Wanda Joshua, served as Allen’s top deputy and the pair went to prison after convictions of mail fraud in 2009 when the government proved they took federal job program money. Joshua, who received a 15-month sentence, was defended by Freeman-Wilson.
Elgin said her tenure led to a township turnaround.
She said 12,300 people received services in 2013.
Both candidates agree on one issue — the cycle of dependency on public aid must be stopped.
“I truly believe the best way to change the city is to change the lives of the people,” Elgin said.
“Look at North Township, how do they get through it?” Robinson said referring to the nearby urban township that includes East Chicago, Hammond, Highland, Munster and Whiting. “It will take a huge overhaul, while at the same time maintaining services. But there has to be a better way.”