By Stephanie Gadlin
Special to the Gary Crusader
When Gary residents go to the polls on Tuesday, May 8th they may be the deciding factor in whether or not an African American will become the first chief law enforcement officer for Lake County. However, two Black men are in a competitive race, and some observers have said splitting the vote, will ensure a different outcome.
This isn’t a scenario lost on Lake County Clerk of the Circuit Court Michael “Mike” Brown who has thrown his hat in the ring as the next Lake County sheriff, or Col. Richard T. Ligon, a former federal law enforcement agent and military commander. If elected, one of them will make history by becoming the first African American to hold the position of the county’s chief law enforcement officer.
Yet Brown, who is facing term limits as county clerk, insists that making history is not the impetus for him entering the race. “I’m aware of the historical importance, and that would be a great honor, but this is about service and how we can strengthen the department going forward,” he told the Crusader. “We need to restore the public’s trust, build employee morale and develop a comprehensive law enforcement plan that also has community input.”
Prior to being elected Clerk, Mike Brown successfully served two consecutive terms as the elected Lake County Recorder. His campaign for sheriff has been endorsed by Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
In addition to Brown and Ligon, seven other candidates are vying for the office, including Sally DeRose, David Dowling, Jim Nowacki, Gerry Scheub, Todd Rakos, Maria Trajkovich and current Sheriff Oscar Martinez.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Department (LCSD) was hit last week with more fallout from the corruption trial of former Sheriff John Buncich who was convicted eight months ago of fraud and bribery. Former deputy chief Daniel Murcheck was indicted on April 20th for allegedly lying to the FBI during an investigation into pay-to-play towing. That first corruption trial and resignation of the sheriff allowed the Lake County Democratic Party to appoint Martinez in the top seat this past August.
LCSD, with a $35 million to $40 million budget, oversees 500 employees serving four divisions including police, corrections, court security and animal control.
While Brown says the department needs a “fresh set of eyes,” and cites his 20 plus years of county-wide administrative experience, Ligon, who is making his third bid for the office, believes that his wealth of law enforcement, military service and community service experience is what will resonate with voters.
“I am the most qualified candidate in this race,” Ligon told the Crusader. “Experience does indeed matter. If you needed heart surgery would you go to a podiatrist or a cardiologist? Both are physicians and both have an understanding of medicine, but I like to think if a podiatrist walked in to do your surgery you’d get out of there. If you don’t have any law enforcement experience it’s going to be very difficult to communicate to people.”
While Brown enjoys the support of voters and high-powered Democrats who’ve kept him in office for over two decades, Ligon has a loyal following of supporters thro-ughout Lake County, including law enforcement, educators, community and faith leaders.
Ligon supporter Syron “Sy” Smith, a community organizer and political consultant agreed, “As an African American, I know people in Gary will be better off with either of those two. But, I’m a Navy guy and I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who will raise their right hand and swear to give their life up for other people, so I’m with Col. Ligon. He also has integrity, experience, and the courage to stand up to the Fraternal Order of Police, [which] protects people who engage in [misconduct.] I don’t think he’ll be one to back down to the FOP.”
Smith, and other area voters, say they are concerned that Gary has seen a 14 percent spike in homicides this year. Faith and community leaders recently announced a renewed partnership with Gary Police Chief Richard Allen to design a comprehensive plan to address violence, gangs and the societal problems that lead to criminal behavior.
Brown believes voters will base their decision on how well they know and trust the candidates vying for office. He says it is unfortunate the African American base will be split between he and Ligon. “I met with [the colonel] early on to discuss this and the outcome wasn’t….,” he said with his voice trailing. “I thought we could work together. It is what it is. It will be up to the voters to decide.”
In response Ligon confirmed that he had met privately with Brown and Mayor Freeman-Wilson, but he thought perhaps Brown should withdraw. “It would have been better not to divide the vote, but a lot of people have told me they can’t support [Brown], because he doesn’t have the experience. He came to the meeting with the mayor. Being a little older than him, I felt that he should step back and then if I’m elected, I would give him a position and train him so he could at least have a fuller understanding of law enforcement. Why should I step out of the way for political reasons?”
A representative for Mayor Freeman-Wilson did not respond to a Crusader inquiry at press deadline. Both Ligon’s and Brown’s names will appear on the May 8th ballot causing some speculation that this will allow Martinez, a Latino, to win.
Added Smith” There’s no doubt about it, there will be a split Black vote because there are people who see value in both of them. There’s also serious work to do to motivate our base, because the majority of us tend to go with whatever the party says, and that usually isn’t what’s best for us.”