Smug Smiles to Full Diapers: What the Conviction of an Indiana Sheriff can remind us about civics

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich was recently convicted of fraud.

While hearing of the conviction did not surprise me, it reminded me of questions I have held through the years. Initially, the Lake County, Indiana Sheriff’s office is a somewhat flawed place. I remember hearing from a friend of mine who got stranded near Gary. Although an officer was nice enough to give him a ride, he had to endure “warnings” about, and racial epithets related to, African-Americans throughout the ride. This was during one of Buncich’s reigns.

During another of his reigns, there was an alleged murder in my neighborhood. For some reason, it brought out the Lake County Sheriff as well as the local police. The Sheriff’s officers were truly foul people–they ran door-to-door with the energy of excited puppies, speculating the death was a drug crime. Their reactions would have been endearing in a Barney Fife way if not so hateful. They made the episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Andy deputizes Goober look like a stellar police training film. In fact, as I told them was likely, it was a crime of passion. The family affected was in no way involved with drugs. It turned out one spouse had walked in on the other “cheating” and had reacted . . . explosively. Of course, neither the Lake County goons nor the local “press” ever corrected the “drug” story with the public, so the surviving child got to grow up with the stigma attached by shoddy police work coupled with racism.

The real question, though, isn’t whether there are flaws. It is why people keep voting for these flawed representatives. In Northwest Indiana, many people brag on this kind of voting with smug looks on their faces, clearly thinking their ignorance is “cute.” It is not so cute for a black family whose reputation is smeared or crime victims who don’t get justice because we put reprehensible in people in office time and time again.

Although the Supreme Court has deemed much of the Voting Rights Act irrelevant, we really need a new, expanded one. The Voting Rights Act is largely limited to “covered jurisdictions” based on a problematic history, and it forbids practices like gerrymandering and imposing a poll tax or literacy tests. While these protections are important, there is the question of how people are disenfranchised through lack of basic, civic knowledge.

When I ran for a political office in the 1990s, I encountered a lot of weird behavior. There was the smug insistence on voting for a known wife-beater (person, not t-shirt) because, “I knew him since he was in diapers.” However, more troubling were people who were disenfranchised for low amounts of money.

When a woman told me should could not vote for me because she would lose her place as an election judge, I assumed this was a mighty position. After all, one would have to be paid a lot to be disenfranchised in exchange for the job. However, the job paid $50.00 for a grueling day of work. Some years might bring two opportunities ($100.00), but some brought none. Others gave up space in their yards for election signs–to the tune of $5.00 per election. Even people holding onto coveted municipal jobs were making a whopping $18,000 year–a salary easily matched (or beat) with honest work in a private-sector job with soul intact.

In the end, questioning of people brought one common theme: they honestly believe they could be observed in the voting booth. Maybe they were–many had stories of lost jobs and other repercussions following a vote. It seems more likely that a stray word about how one voted got back to the wrong person.

Northwest Indiana voters put up with a lot, seeing a lot and saying nothing. Someone knew–some spouse or employee or contractor–about the Buncich scandal before it erupted. But people said nothing. For years. Through multiple Buncich reigns.

Before that, a powerful county politician was controlled by one disgusting, corrupt family. Word was (as was told to me), the drunken patriarch had dangled the politician, a lawyer, from a high window by his feet to drive home the point that he would do the family’s bidding. He obeyed (maybe liking not having his skull crashing down onto pavement) for years before he was caught. His misdeeds were public secrets, eliciting that sleazy, aren’t-I-cute smile from any number of voters–until he was caught. He crashed so hard and fast that I was the only person civil enough to give him a few minutes at a fundraiser after the “public secret” became public. He ended up doing time in jail, and losing his Illinois and Indiana law licenses.

To this day, Indiana’s lack of public transit is one of this best indicators of corruption. Money enters the area, but it does not go into buses and trains. Suspecting we knew where the money went, a friend and I dined at a watering-hole known to be popular with certain political appointees who control transit money for Northwest Indiana. Although the now-shuttered restaurant was truly vile, we poked down a bit of what they called food. We asked for our bill to be applied to the transit conglomerate’s tab . . . and the waitress smilingly complied. Perhaps it was the fried gristle, but we didn’t have the stomach to carry out fraud. We quickly called the waitress back and settled our bills with cash.

Indiana needs an enhanced Voter Rights Act of its own. Basic civic education is sorely lacking–voters at least deserve to know they are not watched/recording in their polling places. Perhaps the education should be tied to eligibility for a driver’s license, since poor political choices have resulted in transit monies being pocketed and few public transit options–making driving a necessity for survival.

At any rate, it is time to wipe the smug smiles away and stop selling votes. And surely we can find a better basis for electing officials than our memories of their full diapers.