E.C. Council seats up for grabs on Tuesday
The East Chicago Council could be reshaped after Tuesday’s primary election, as 27 candidates are vying for 9 seats. Among the candidates’ top concerns are public safety, improved infrastructure, and better recreation opportunities for youth.
All candidates are running on the Democratic primary ballot. There are no council candidates on the Republican side.
Nine candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination for three at-large East Chicago City Council seats.
Incumbents Dwayne (Tuss) Rancifer Jr. and Kenny (Coach) Monroe are looking to retain their seats. Councilwoman Debra Bolanos, who was seated by caucus in September 2021 to replace former City Councilman Emiliano Perez, is seeking her first primary nomination. The three are facing Jesse Gomez, Ezell (Coach E) Foster, Debra Vanessa (Coach V) Hernandez-Orange, Alyun (Al) Taylor, Frank Madera and Stephanie Reyna.
Neither Rancifer nor Monroe responded to requests to be interviewed for this article.
Foster is a retired city code enforcement officers and a long-time precinct committeeman. He was returned to the ballot by Lake County Circuit Court after a challenge questioning his party affiliation initially removed him from the ballot.
He said there are five people currently on the city council who always vote ‘no’ against the mayor and that has been holding the city back the past four years.
“If you are for the people you should want the city to be as good as possible,” Foster said. He said he would work with the mayor, regardless who that may be, to move forward an agenda that would benefit the city.
Foster said if elected he would advocate for the city’s senior and youth communities.
Former city councilman and current school board member Jesse Gomez is looking to return to the council this election cycle. Gomez has been a precinct committeeman since 1983 and followed in the footsteps of his father, who also served in the city council.
“I’ve enjoyed both offices really. Both have unique challenges. As the city is going through this hopeful resurgence, I want to be in the room where it happens, to be part of that change happening at the municipal level,” Gomez said.
Public safety is key to any resurgence not just for residents’ sake of building a strong vibrant community but to draw and retain companies who are certainly conscious about the safety of their properties and employees, he continued.
He lauded the installation of more LED lights and security cameras and said they are helpful as the city deals with staffing level challenges.
The lack of recreational facilities also is a concern.
“Here in East Chicago our recreation facilities are just not accessible to the residents, and I see (facilities) accessible to communities that are a 10-minute drive from us,” Gomez said. He said there is nothing for teens to do in the city.
He would also like to see more career and technical education programs in place so when businesses do located in the city, they have a skilled workforce.
School board member Hernandez-Orange is seeking to shift to the city council after six years in office. She ran an unsuccessful bid for an at large city council seat four years ago and during a special election. This is her third attempt at a council seat.
Hernandez-Orange currently works as the city’s director of parks and recreation, a position she said she understands she must vacate by law if elected. She said her experience working as parks director has helped her understand how city budgets work.
“It’s given me an understanding of how government works and puts things in perspective as to what should be important,” she said.
Her experience working with the schools also will be helpful, she continued.
“Overall the first thing I would do to keep the City of East Chicago on the right path is continue to put money into the infrastructure here in the city,” she said.
Hernandez-Orange said all of the city’s employees are important, not just certain departments, and she would work to ensure they are all fairly treated.
“I think it’s just when we are fighting for one, we have to fight for all. We all come from that same pot. For the most part, our everyday employees, most of them live in the city. Why not try to fight for them also,” Hernandez-Orange said.
Reyna, a teacher at East Chicago Central High School, is taking a second run at a seat on the council. She said she learned a lot from her first experience campaigning and was ready to press forward this time around.
“I have wanted to be on the council since I was in high school. Ever since then politics has always been an interest of mine,” she said.
Reyna said she wants to help create the East Chicago for her students that she wished she had at a young age. She called her students her inspiration and said she would like to bring back some of the programs in the city that were available when she was a youth.
“I do look forward to working with others to make sure we make conscious decision about safety… I look forward to a safer East Chicago with opportunities for our youth and teenagers to be in safe environment,” she said.
Bolanos, owner of the former Galaxy Travel in East Chicago, retired at the start of the pandemic and has been volunteering for two cultural nonprofits. She is looking to retain the seat she won via caucus in September 2021.
“Public safety for me is a No. 1 issue,” Bolanos said. She would like to expand a crime watch program created about 15 years ago in her Harbor neighborhood.
Bolanos said after the special election she walked the community to introduce herself and learn about what resident concerns may be. She plans to work toward installing more lighting throughout the city in response to complaints about many neighborhoods not having enough lighting.
Another priority is the environment. Bolanos said she understands East Chicago is an industrial area, but said there should be stricter rules in place. She would like to see the city reopen its air quality department to keep residents informed.
Alyun Taylor and Frank Madera could not be reached for this article.
Two candidates, Kelly Williams Sr., and Jesus Luis Ortiz III, are challenging first-term incumbent Monica Guzman Gonzalez for the 1st District council seat.
Guzman Gonzalez said she first ran for the council because after years of volunteering in the first district and serving as a reserve police officer she felt she had a bigger voice to be heard when it comes to helping the community.
As her first term comes to a close, she said she wants to continue the work she started.
“One of the things I feel that I’ve really accomplished is really putting a voice to the first district. People don’t understand who to call or where to get information. If they call me…I will call, we well call and work on it together,” she said.
She touted the passage of a salary ordinance that makes the city’s police and fire departments competitive with other agencies around the area. Public safety workers received a 10% salary increase in 2022 and a 12.5% increase in 2023, along with some other financial incentive improvements.
If elected to a second term Guzman Gonzalez said she would like to turn some of her attention to the city’s veterans and work to open an office of veterans’ affairs to assist veterans in accessing services to which they are entitled. Currently the only such office with a full-time veterans service officer is in the VSO at the Lake County Government Center. Appointments at the center book out weeks in advance.
Guzman Gonzalez defended the council’s move to zero out the mayor’s budget forcing the administration to come before the panel for every expenditure — a move the administration said made it near impossible to conduct day to day business at the time — as an effort to improve oversight.
“We as a council like to see things itemized. We want to know where they are spending the money,” she said.
Williams entered the fray in his first political campaign and is running what he calls a grassroots effort. He has been a married pastor in the city for 16 years and has raised his children in the first district.
“I feel like I can do a good job. I’ve been a community activist and a community servant over half of my life,” Williams said. He served on the Lake County Judicial Nominating Committee, on the board of the East Chicago Public Library, worked with Goodwill and is president of the board of the social service agency Target Area Development in Chicago.
Williams said he has been looking to get involved in government to impact the community in a greater way.
“I feel I could do more to work together with the city government to accomplish the progress already taking place in our city,” Williams said.
His No. 1 priority would be working with the city administration and the council to get projects done and ensure they are good stewards over the taxpayers’ money by promoting infrastructure and the beatification of the city’s streets and parks. He would also work to sponsor ordinances that would attract businesses to the first district.
Williams pledged to return 10% of his salary back to the district in the form of youth scholarships. He is also looking to create a clean up and snow removal program to assist the district’s seniors.
Phone numbers provided by Ortiz on his campaign finance documents did not accept calls or texts.
In District 2 incumbent Lenny Franciski is unchallenged.
Incumbent District 3 Councilman Terence Hill is seeking his second term on the city council in a race where he faces three challengers: Rick Rodriguez Jr., Andy “Coach” Rodriguez and Iyana “Yanee” Simmons.
Hill said he had a long road to winning his first city council election in 2019 after running in six elections and one caucus. Now that he is in the seat he would like the chance to continue the work of which he has been a part.
“I’m proud of making a difference in this area. (Residents) have a councilman they can call on that can solve problems, take action and get results. I’ve done that with my constituents. I’m Councilman Terry on the spot,” Hill said.
During his tenure a majority of the district’s alleys have been paved. Hill said he was instrumental in getting paving done in the East Calumet area of the district.
Like his fellow candidates for council positions, Williams said he is 100% behind public safety.
If given a second term, Hill said he plans to work to incorporate some speed bumps in the district to help control traffic and add more decorative lighting to beautify the neighborhood. New homes are being built in the third district with the first one going up on Kennedy Avenue next to the fire department.
Andy Rodriguez is a 20-year educator who ran first ran for school board in 2016.
“We have to reopen our community centers,” Rodriguez said. Both youth and elderly benefit from the community centers.
“That’s probably the largest thing I’m running on beside public safety.”
Like his fellow council candidates Rodriguez said the city has to work harder to fill the vacant but funded positions in the police and fire departments. If elected, he would work to ensure the fire department in the third district has the proper resources.
Rodriguez decried the public dust-ups between the mayor and city council that show the two branches fighting against each other.
“We need to figure out how to work together. It’s bigger than anyone,” he said. “No matter who the mayor is or who the council is, we should be able to work together to make our community, our city, to make it better for everybody. We need to stop fighting each other and come together. It’s bigger than one person. It should be that way.”
Multiple attempts to reach candidates Rick Rodriguez Jr., and Iyana “Yanee” Simmons were unsuccessful.
Fourth District Councilwoman Stacy Dixon-Winfield is seeking a second term on the body in a race against two challengers George Barrera and Christine Russell.
Dixon-Winfield has served as a precinct committeewoman for 19 years and was an Indiana state delegate for several terms. She was among the first elected school board trustees for the School City of East Chicago, where she served two terms before running for city council.
“How could you live in the city and not be concerned about what’s going on?” Dixon-Winfield said.
She said the 4th District has a large senior citizen population and public safety remains a top concern. She would like to work more to bring safety awareness to the community and would like to inform people of the plan if an event such as a tornado would strike.
“If we have a tragedy in the city of East Chicago, what are the steps we take?” she said.
Dixon-Winfield would like to see more lighting in her district and has been working the past few years to make that happen. She would also like more remote cameras to help with public safety.
“Beautification we have in our city. What’s more important is the safety of our residents,” she said.
Multiple attempts to reach Barrera and Russell were unsuccessful.
Two challengers, Catherine Thomas and Robert Sims, are looking to unseat long-time incumbent Councilman Robert Garcia for the 5th District seat.
Garcia first became a councilman in 2003 after a caucus and has served under three mayors. Like his fellow incumbents, he praised the council’s successful efforts to get raises the past two years for the city’s police and firefighters.
He said the hot issue right now is public safety and he would like to continue working to hire more police and fire personnel.
If re-elected, Garcia said he would like to focus on encouraging more home ownership in the city.
“I’d like to try and work with some developers to come in to sell instead of rent,” Garcia said.
He also sees reopening the city’s two shuttered pools as a priority so there are more activities for the city’s youth.
“We’ve been blessed to have a surplus. The money’s there,” Garcia said, adding there are areas that could be cut to help pay for the pools if needed. He pointed to a $1.6 million contract for grass cutting as a possible excessive expense.
Thomas’s run for the city council seat marks the first time she has ever run for public office.
“I had to do something to set an example of what I want in my community, what I need in my community,” Thomas said.
Thomas retired as a family development specialist after 27 years in the field. She is concerned about the level of pollution in the city and the lack of education on global warming and the future of the city.
There are a lot of old homes in the city, many owned by senior citizens. She would like to work with a program to bring in funds to help seniors make repairs to their homes.
She would also like to work to address the food desert problem in the city, which has no major grocery stores right now.
“The average council person is not focusing on the needs of the people, but on the needs of a political war by not working with the mayor. I feel we have to work together to help our community progress,” she said. Thomas said, adding that she would like the city to create a community garden.
Sims could not be reached for this article.
It’s a four-way race in the 6th District where incumbent Councilwoman Gilda Orange is facing off against three challengers — Lester Chandler Jr., Deneitrice Hill and Zyawaankiijo Powell.
Orange has served on the city council since 2008. If reelected, she said she would continue to work to bring another senior building to fruition after the Nicosia Senior Building was closed in 2021 for safety reasons.
She would also like to finish her work building up the city’s business district.
“We still have a lot to do as far as bringing back our downtown area,” said Orange, citing efforts to raze blighted buildings in the city.
Orange said she is proud of the city’s efforts to reduce crime in areas including the installation of cameras on Guthrie Street. She also touted the creation of a police merit board in 2011 while she was on the council. Orange is also proud of the city’s parks, which now have art and are clean and safe.
Orange said she would rather see splash pads installed instead of reopening the city’s pools, citing costs and the lack of lifeguards. The pools also are not ADA compliant, she said.
She decried the animosity between the council and the mayor’s office and said prior councils were able to disagree with the mayor but still work together to get things done. She said many on the current council dislike the mayor and refuse to work with him.
“You don’t have to like him. I’m hoping we get a good council that will be able to work together the next four years to make sure residents get taken care and put our own personal feelings aside,” Orange said.
She worries some council members may be squandering the city’s surplus as they move to pay for things they want. She knows police and firefighters are angry with her, but she has concerns the 22.5% pay increase may not be sustainable.
This is Chandler’s first attempt at public office. He was an East Chicago police officer for 25 years until he retired in March 2022. Chandler currently works as a security supervisor at Cleveland Cliffs.
Chandler said being in public safety for 25 years he was starting to see the decline in the number of people becoming police and firefighters and wanted to do something about it.
“I live here. I want to feel as safe as I attempted to make people feel when I was out on patrol. I am quite sure people like seeing police officers ride up and down the street in their communities. I wasn’t seeing that,” Chandler said.
He said the mayor and the council will have to come together and work to accomplish the goal. Chandler said national averages for police staffing can be deceiving in a city like East Chicago that has such a high call volume.
Chandler said he would like to see more cameras installed throughout the city to help police and would like to see patrols increased. He would look into grant funding to help provide doorbell cameras to residents.
He also would like to see the recreational centers and pools open so the city’s youth have something to do.
The Post Tribune was unable to coordinate interviews with Hill and Powell.