Jerome Prince stuns two-term mayor in primary
By Giavonni Nickson
Two-term Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson lost the Democratic primary in a stunning upset to Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince Tuesday night.
Freeman-Wilson, Gary’s first Black female mayor, endeavored to win a third term facing eight Democratic candidates challenging her mayoral seat. While Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, Kerry Rice Sr., Eddie Tarver Jr., Mildred Alcorn, Carl Jones, Joe White, and James McKnight II each contended, the battle was between incumbent Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince. Freeman-Wilson and Prince both entered the race with decorated records as elected officials.
Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince, the stand out winner, served a combined 19 years as precinct committeeman, Gary Common Councilman, and Gary’s representative on the Lake County Council before being elected Lake County Assessor in 2014. Tuesday’s win in the Gary mayoral primary was perhaps Prince’s biggest victory in his political career.
He entered the mayoral race in February, hours before the deadline expired. From the start, Prince was a major threat to Freeman-Wilson as a successful politician with an impressive track record in public office.
Prince gave Freeman-Wilson her third loss in running for Gary mayor. She unsuccessfully ran for the post in 2003 and 2007. She finally won in 2011 and 2015. But Tuesday’s loss was devastating as Gary begins to show signs of recovery with new business and jobs after years of a declining economy.
Standing next to her husband and daughter, Freeman-Wilson expressed heartfelt gratitude for the supporters who worked tirelessly throughout the campaign.
“I want to thank all of the folks who worked on behalf of the city. I want to thank all of the elected officials who stepped out and supported me. I had unprecedented support from these elected officials,” said Freeman-Wilson. “The thing that I want you all to remember, particularly those who have worked so hard today and also to those who work so hard day in and day out on behalf of this community, my family and I, and the citizens of this community, whether they know it or not, will always be indebted to each and every one of you.”
With a law degree from Harvard University, Freeman-Wilson served as director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, Gary city judge from 1994 to 2000, and Indiana Attorney General before being elected mayor.
As nineteenth mayor of Gary, Freeman-Wilson became the first female to run the city and lay a blueprint to improve public safety, economic development, and infrastructure.
On election night Freeman-Wilson supporters gathered at the Gary/Chicago International airport for an anticipated victory celebration. Excited supporters sat at tables lined with white linen awaiting poll results. Elected officials, 3rd District Councilwoman Mary Brown, Common Council President Ronald Brewer, and Senator Eddie Melton shared laughs, handshakes, and hugs with supporters and members of the community expecting Freeman-Wilson to preserve her seat as mayor of Gary for a third term.
Music rang decibels above the claps and cheers of supporters as Freeman-Wilson entered the election night party dancing to “I Got a Feeling,” by American music group, the Black Eyed Peas.
Its lyrics, “I gotta feeling, that tonight’s gonna be a good night, that tonight’s gonna be a good good night,” echoed the election night expectations of campaign supporters who filled the room anxiously awaiting results.
Just before 9 p.m., unofficial poll results were reported. With disappointment and optimism, Freeman-Wilson conceded the race.
She announced from the podium, “A few minutes ago I called Jerome Prince to concede the race.”
Supporters responded with sighs of disappointment.
“While I know, like I am, many of you are disappointed,” said Freeman-Wilson. “I trust God enough to know that He has great things in store. He has great things in store for me personally, He has great things in store for our family, but most importantly he has great things in store for the city.”
Her message helped lift the spirits of supporters saddened by her loss and reframe election night as a celebration of eight years with dedicated service and commitment as mayor.
According to a campaign member, “This party is going to continue, we are going to celebrate eight years of progress. This woman made it happen. We are going to celebrate all that she has done for this city. She’s done amazing things. We can celebrate what she has accomplished and go from there.”
Born in Gary, Prince graduated from Gary’s Lew Wallace High School. He served in the U.S. Marines and became a precinct committeeman and won election to the Gary Common Council in 2000. In 2008, Prince stepped down from the City Council to become one of Gary’s representatives on the Lake County Council. In 2014 he successfully ran for county assessor, overseeing the taxation of real estate across the county. Last year, Prince was re-elected county assessor.
Prince launched his campaign at a time when Freeman-Wilson was under attack from her political rival LaVetta Sparks-Wade, another mayoral contender who came in third place, but who perhaps served as a spoiler by taking away much needed votes from the incumbent.
According to campaign finance reports, Freeman-Wilsons drew more than $156,000 this year. Prince raised $66,296 and Sparks-Wade had raised $13,300 in donations.
Freeman-Wilson spent the past eight years laying the foundation to revitalize the city. As a result, a new land-based casino is coming to Interstate 80-94, multi-modal development is happening in Buffington Harbor that will provide jobs and new infrastructure for the community, and development plans have rolled out for Lake Street, the lakefront, and downtown.
When asked about her feelings on her loss Freeman-Wilson stated, “So for tonight the people have spoken, and because I love this community so much and because I love the people of this community so much I respect their decision.”
With optimism, Freeman Wilson declared, “What I have seen over and over and over again is that when one door closes another opens. Our city is on the verge of the greatest “come up” you have ever seen, and we helped make it happen.”
Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.