On Friday, East Chicago, Ind., councilman Robert Battle was sworn into office for a second term. This time around, though, the event was a rather low-key event. Instead of the mayor conducting the ceremony, it was an “unnamed official,” according to the Chicago Tribune. And instead of City Hall, the venue was the county jail.
The inside of the county jail.
The councilman is currently behind bars on multiple felony charges. And while he certainly isn’t the first politician to face legal trouble, he does face quite the uphill battle, so to speak.
It’s not often, after all, that an elected official is accused of murdering a man in cold blood during a drug deal.
Battle has pleaded not guilty. But the gruesome alleged crime is causing serious problems for his party.
Democratic officials in Lake County, Ind., just across the border from Illinois, find themselves facing an unusual problem. Their headache stems not from their candidate failing to get elected, but rather from him refusing to resign.
“I can’t remember a situation like this,” Sheriff John Buncich, chair of the Lake County Democratic Central Committee, told the Tribune in November, when Battle was reelected just a few weeks after being charged with murder and drug dealing. “It’s wrong for the taxpayers, wrong for our party.”
Under Indiana law, there is nothing that Buncich can do to oust Battle unless the councilman resigns, admits to either charge or is found guilty in court.
In the meantime, Battle gets to keep his seat — and his $42,365 salary.
“I’m very, very upset about this,” Buncich told the Tribune in November after Battle won his seat. “To me what is right is right. You are innocent until proven guilty, but the fact remains you are not going to get out. There is no bond on the charges. As the Democratic leader of the county party, I need to look out for the best interest of the party.”
How, exactly, a man charged with murder and drug dealing just days before an election could win reelection says a lot about life in this poor northwestern corner of Indiana.
“One [reason] is a lot of people just do not pay attention to the news. They don’t even know he’s in jail,” Marie Eisenstein, associate professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest, told the Tribune. Most people in these parts get their news not from newspapers but from television, which is dominated by Chicago stories.
Party dominance and voter apathy are also factors. Battle ran unopposed, winning with just 308 votes in a city of about 30,000 people.
Battle didn’t even vote for himself because he was in jail and didn’t request an absentee ballot, Buncich told NWI.com.
“I just think it’s just a matter of people not knowing [about the charges] and voting for the party they are familiar with,” Eisenstein told the Tribune.
As strange as the current political scandal is, though, it’s not unprecedented in East Chicago, a tiny city sandwiched between Chicago and Gary, Ind., on Lake Michigan.
In 2010, former mayor George Pabey (D) was convicted of conspiracy and theft of government funds and was sentenced to five years in prison. And in September, Keith Soderquist, the Democratic mayor of nearby Lake Station, was convicted of wire fraud and tax evasion. Soderquist and his wife, who was also convicted, have not yet been sentenced.
Some voters simply may be jaded from all the corruption, Buncich suggested.
“There may be a few individuals in East Chicago with a reaction like, ‘so what?'” Buncich said. “We’re trying to rebuild our image in this county. We just had a mayor convicted. Enough is enough. That is all I have to say. I’m going to do what I have to do.
“Legally we are looking at everything” to remove Battle from office, he added. “Maybe there is some other loophole somewhere we can use.”
Battle, 42, was in trouble long before Oct. 12, the day he allegedly killed 31-year-old Reimundo “Rey” Camarillo Jr.
As early as April, the agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Lake County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force were tapping his phone and investigating him for drug trafficking, according to an Oct. 14 indictment obtained by the Tribune.
On Sept. 23, officials caught Battle with 73 grams of marijuana and $100,700 in cash in his car, according to the indictment. Police also linked him to nine ounces of cocaine and three stolen guns found elsewhere, according to the documents.
Roughly three weeks later, Battle allegedly shot Camarillo in an alley behind Battle’s apartment. Battle said that he killed Camarillo in self-defense after Camarillo pulled a knife on him, according to court documents. But the Lake County Coroner’s Office ruled that Caramillo was shot once in the back, and police failed to find a knife at the scene, the Tribune reported.
Despite the serious charges against him, and calls from within his own party for him to resign, Battle has continued going about his business as usual, even while behind bars.
Battle could have opted to be sworn in for a second term via video conference, but he instead chose to take the oath of office in person. On Friday, an official visited him in Porter County Jail to do him the honor.
Although the charges against Battle are another black eye for the Democratic Party in northwestern Indiana, one of the few parts of the Republican-leaning state that Democrats control, the scandal isn’t likely to cost the party anytime soon.
“The Democratic stalwarts, the people who are really solidified in party identification, will never see the Republicans as a better option,” Eisenstein, the political scientist, told the Tribune. “I don’t see what could happen that would damage the Democratic Party here.”