MICHIGAN CITY — The La Porte County prosecuting attorney and his primary election challenger locked horns during a candidate forum Wednesday night, clashing over crime statistics and offering sharply different views on the effectiveness of the office.
“I could not be prouder of what we have accomplished the past three years,” incumbent John Espar told an overflow crowd at City Hall.
Espar said his office created special units to investigate and prosecute crimes against women and children. He also directed the conversion of the office from a part-time to a full-time staff of attorneys, “without asking for another dollar.”
“We set standards for the first time so victims can expect a certain level of responsibility, and we set out to enforce those standards, doing the heavy lifting of the work of prosecuting attorney like never before,” he said.
Lake, who served under four county prosecutors before taking a position with the office of Indiana Attorney General, cited a decrease in the number of cases filed by prosecutors even while crime has been on the rise.
“The role of prosecutor is to give justice — and that doesn’t mean for a limited number of cases,” Lake said. “It means for every case, for every defendant, in every investigation.”
Lake said he would aggressively pursue justice in the county by being in the courtroom rather than behind a desk.
“I’m a trial attorney, not a politician,” Lake said. “I will try cases.”
Espar said his term has been marked by a 96 percent increase in jury trials for major crimes and a 220 percent increase in cases for crimes against women and children.
However, Lake said 25 percent fewer cases were filed in the first three years of Espar’s term compared with the first three years of the previous administration. He said serious crime is up 11 percent in Michigan City and as much as 26 percent in the county.
“That’s why I’m running,” Lake said. “I plan on doing the job a prosecutor is supposed to do.”
Espar countered that the decrease in the number of cases was about the same as the 31 percent drop in crime reported by Michigan City and county police in the same period of time.
“Crime is going down because of good police work combined with good work by the prosecutor’s office,” Espar said.
Each man used familiar phrases to debunk the claims of the other.
Espar said there were “three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Lake responded by saying “numbers don’t lie, people do.”
Lake cited seven mistrials in the past six months, while Espar said he wanted to continue his focus on finding justice for crime victims. Both men referenced their deep passion for the law.
The two Democrats square off in the May 8 primary election. No Republicans filed for the office.
The race for prosecutor highlighted a two-hour forum sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, the Better Government Study Group and the South County Community Coalition. Written questions from the audience were included and each candidate had a limited amount of time to respond.
Moderated by League of Women Voters member Jan Chamberlin, the forum also included candidates in races for Indiana House District 9 as well as Michigan Township assessor, advisory board and trustee.
Two other forums — one April 19 at South Central Junior-Senior High School and another April 25 at Purdue University Northwest — will feature township and county council races in those areas.
All three Democrats aiming to succeed state Rep. Scott Pelath participated in the forum Wednesday.
Patricia Boy, Sean Fitzpatrick and Duane Parry were pelted with questions on issues ranging from medical marijuana to gun regulation.
Unopposed Republican candidate Dan Granquist was allowed to make a brief introduction but was not included in the questioning.
Michigan Township trustee candidates Jeff Deuitch, Agnes Meer, Pat Kowalski, Keith Harris and Deborah Vance talked about their plans for the office if elected. Democratic incumbent Rodney Washington did not attend.
Township Assessor Scott Bell and challenger Steven Pawlak talked about their contest in the Democratic primary.
Four of the nine Democrats competing for three positions on the Michigan Township Advisory Board also participated. They were David McCray, George Kazmierczak, Melody Farmer and Clarence Finnie.
League of Women Voters president Jo Ann Engquist said the organization has not always sponsored forums ahead of a primary election but the number of candidates who filed this year shows renewed interest in local government and elections.
The organization’s support for forums in Westville and LaCrosse later this month is a first, she said.
“I’m very pleased,” Engquist said. “This is why I’m in the League of Women Voters.”
More information about all the candidates and the election in La Porte County is available at www.vote411.org.