HPI Interview: Mayor McDermott talks about pandemic, impact on 1st CD race

Source: Howey Politics Indiana

Five-term Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., is the man of this peculiar season. He’s an executive dealing with the most deadly pandemic in more than a century. He’s also running for the 1st CD seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into both his campaign and governing style. On Palm Sunday, he and the Hammond Police Department had to confront a church determined to hold a service in violation of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s shelter-in-place order.

McDermott opted to use social media to thwart a second service planned for later that Sunday.

COVID-19 also wreaked havoc on his campaign. While he doesn’t fault Holcomb for issuing the order – in fact Mayor McDermott says he would have done the same thing – it forced him to cancel his largest fundraiser of the year on St. Patrick’s Day, as well as every campaign event for the next 50 days heading into what he planned for the May 5 primary.

Delayed to June 2, McDermott said his frontrunner status and the new date has given his 13 opponents another month to catch up.

According to Federal Election Commission filings, the extra month may not amount to much for his opponents. McDermott posted $270,000 on top of his field leading fourth quarter 2019 report of $170,000, for a cycle total of $440,000. In contrast, State Rep. Mara Candalaria Reardon posted $105,000 on top of the $95,000 she raised in the fourth quarter. His second main challenger, North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan posted $115,000 on top of the $55,000 he reported at the end of 2019.

When we conducted this Howey Politics Indiana interview Monday afternoon, McDermott was dealing with the pandemic. “We make fun of our Illinois neighbors a lot, but they test at 8,000 people a day. That’s three times the rate of testing in Indiana,” he said, adding that the state is still flying blind with its inability to test asymptomatic people and then trace contacts, which are keys to reopening the ecoonomy. “Everybody makes fun of Illinois because they have too much government. But you need government in times of emergency. They are kicking our butt with testing.”

Here is the HPI Interview with Mayor McDermott:

HPI: What are you hearing from the state on coronavirus testing?

McDermott: I was talking to the governor early on. We were texting back and forth. I know he is frustrated as well. I’m not one to criticize Gov. Holcomb for a lack of testing. I don’t think it’s his fault; it comes from the top. When we have emergencies, that’s what the national government is for. We’re not going to have a hurricane blow through Northwest Indiana, but this is the equivalent of a hurricane. Usually the federal government is there to help. It’s just frustrating because I don’t think we were ready in any way, shape or form. That’s obvious.

HPI: The dynamic with the governor and Vice President Pence, do you suppose that’s why Gov. Holcomb hasn’t been more forceful in demanding a better national response on testing and other supplies?

McDermott: I would be if I was the governor and my state was testing at one third of what the state of Illinois is. I would be screaming from the mountain top. It’s possible that his loyalty to the vice president he doesn’t want to make the administration look bad. When you hear South Korea was testing 10,000 people a day, the state of Illinois is testing 8,000 people a day, and in Indiana, we’re testing 2,600 people a day, how do we know if we’re on top of this thing or not? Or are we sticking our head in the sand? We’re hoping that it’s over, but we have no idea because we are not testing.

HPI: About a week ago I suggested the governor and Indiana congressional delegation call for a national emergency operations manager, similar to what Lt. Gen. Russel Honore did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There was no response, and many of the glaring bottleneck and lack of testing issues persist. As a congressional candidate, do you believe this is necessary?

McDermott: I read that. I’d rather see the governor take that role. But maybe he’s personally uncomfortable taking that negative approach with the federal government. My residents feel that we’re on top of this thing and I get on Facebook live and try to tell Hammond residents how few people are being tested. How do we know we’re on top of this when we’re not testing them?

HPI: Every health expert I’ve heard says testing is the key to reopening society. Why is that so important?

McDermott: Let’s say I had it already. I was exposed and I had the anti-bodies. I’d feel a lot more comfortable going back to work if I knew I had had it. I had a police officer who believe he had been exposed. He went in for a test on Friday and we’re waiting for the test results today. If we’re going to go back to work we certainly have to do better on the testing for the people we’re sending back into the workforce, knowing they are not spreading the disease.

HPI: I read that you and the Hammond PD had confronted a violation of Gov. Holcomb’s stay-at-home order Palm Sunday weekend. What happened?

McDermott: It was unfortunate it got to the point it did. The Gary Diocese shut down all church services early. We have a huge church, the First Baptist Church of Hammond, with 7,500 people at each service, and they were not pushing the issue. And 99% of the churches in our city are abiding by the governor’s stay in place order. And then there’s one, the Church of Christ. It’s a small church, real close to my house and last weekend there were complaints from residents. Some 99% of the time we’re finding out about illegal gatherings from our own residents, who are policing for us. We get the complaint, the officers show up, they observe over 30 people in the church, most of them are unmasked at the time. They are streaming live right in the middle of the service. My officers arrive, they disrupt the service. They tell them, “This is an illegal gathering; you can’t be here.” The church elder basically told them, “We’re essential. If you guys have to ticket us, then ticket us. We’re doing it.” My officers were extremely nervous because of 1st Amendment issues, so they came back and spoke with the chief, who spoke to me. We decided they should be cited for what they did. They had a second service planned that day so we made sure the officers told them that can’t happen. And it didn’t. I felt like peer pressure would be appropriate. I posted it on social media and it went viral. The local media picked up on it, it was front page in both papers. During the Spanish flu in 1918, I researched this: There were church services shut down across the country for the same reason, without violating the 1st Amendment.

HPI: It must be surreal for you and Gov. Holcomb to have to shut down church services. What’s it like being an executive during this kind of environment?

McDermott: I feel like everyone’s mad at me. I feel like I’m the essential non-essential officer. Golf courses is another big deal up here. In fact, one of my opponents running for Congress, has a golf course. He’s a trustee and one of the main parts of his job is running a golf course … in the teeth of a pandemic. I shamed him. I feel that’s part of our job, the kids aren’t supposed to be at the skateboard park or on the playgrounds. I appeal to the parents to control their kids. That’s what we’re doing; going around and being the bad guy. Look at (Mayor) Lori Lightfoot in Chicago. When they had a problem on the lakefront, she went down the next morning by herself and shut it down. There’s a picture of her shutting it down. That’s our job right now. Unfortunately, people are pushing the limits. It’s a tough situation.

HPI: The overwhelming response has been compliance. But that’s the first month. If we get into a second or third month, do you believe that will hold?

McDermott: It’s hard enough getting people to comply. If this goes on much longer, I don’t know. The stock market was up last week and people are feeling we are turning the corner on this. People are watching the national news and think this is about over. I figure we’re going to get out there too early and, you know, they end up reinfecting people. I’m giving Gov. Holcomb a lot of credit and I think our state sheltered in place very appropriately. I think we were early, which turns out to be better. San Francisco went early and they had 18 coronavirus deaths. Give Gov. Holcomb credit; we sheltered early. What frustrated me early was the essential businesses like golf courses vs. the non-essential, but the governor tightened up on that.

HPI: Since you’re running for Congress, critique President Trump on his handling of this pandemic.

McDermott: I want to make it clear I am trying not to beat up on the president during a national crisis. I believe all of us as a country need to pull together. But I expect better from the United States of America. I think we’re the greatest country in the world and we should be leading the world when it comes to testing and how to battle this virus. The words I’m hearing from the president are disturbing. Basically, the buck doesn’t stop with the president; that it’s not the president’s fault; it’s just poor leadership. And, quite frankly, we have the best military in the world, but the CDC is obviously underfunded. I expect better from the United States of America. One thing we should all learn from this going forward is when we talk about the Centers for Disease Control, we should be talking about it in the same vein we talk about the United States Navy. It’s just as important as the Navy, the Army, the Air Force. We need to fund it. It’s a military branch and we need to fund it in this war against a germ. And it’s kicking our butt right now. We weren’t ready for it. I’m not saying President Trump should anticipate every scenario, but he has people that should be ready for every scenario and we weren’t ready for this. The other thing that is disturbing is we needed to send out to other countries like China and Vietnam for PPE because we don’t make things in America any more. It’s a problem. We need to make things like masks and gloves. If we’re in a crisis like this, China isn’t going to send us PPE.

HPI: The other disturbing thing is the China makes most of our prescription drugs.

McDermott: I don’t want to have to call China when I need to make a battleship. We need to make steel in America. This has shown us that we have to make the basic supplies in America. When you have a crisis, they’re not going to ship us PPE during this pandemic, because they need it for their own citizens. I think America is going to change because of this and I hope we’ve learned our lesson. I hope the next time there’s a pandemic, we react way better. I think history is going to measure our reaction to this pandemic in a very poor light. We lack testing and we’re dying at a higher rate than other countries. I expect better from the United States of America

HPI: How do you expect society to change on the back end of this?

McDermott: Voting will change. There is tremendous energy behind the Democratic Party’s quest for mail-in voting. Virtual meetings are going to become more common. All of us are learning how to use Zoom. I have a studio in my house now. I never had that before. We’ll have more telemeetings, teletherapy, telemedicine … if I have COVID-19, I don’t need to go see my doctor face-to-face. I think America will forever be changed because of this, hopefully for the better.

HPI: Where do you think your 1st CD campaign stands at this point?

McDermott: The 4th quarter I raised $170,000. This quarter I raised $270,000. We have $169,000 cash-on-hand. By the way, I lost my biggest fundraiser of the year to COVID-19. My St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser was shut down. That was the day shelter-in-place went into effect. We’re doing very well with fundraising; I’m very proud of my team. The more I raise, the more I can go on TV. We want to stay up on TV. That’s the goal right now.

HPI: What other impact has the pandemic had on your campaign beyond fundraising?

McDermott: I had every day, for the last 45 to 50 days of the campaign was packed with schedule. I lost every one of them. All the events, all the candidate nights got wiped out. And now the whole extending the election by one month … I understand why Gov. Holcomb made that decision. If I had been governor, I would have made the exact same decision. But I don’t think that helps a candidate like me much at all. I think I am winning and extending out an election by a month to the person who is winning isn’t a very pleasant experience. That’s one more month for everyone to catch up with me. I understand why the governor did it, but I’m frustrated as the leading candidate. That’s the reality of it. I’m not complaining.

HPI: Have you done any polling?

McDermott: Yes, we have. I learned I’m in the lead. I polled before COVID and only 3% of residents were worried about COVID. I was up by double digits in a 14-person race. With one third still undecided, I was up double digits.

HPI: How will the expanded no-excuse absentee balloting impact this race?

McDermott: I’ve always believed the more the merrier when it comes to voting. I think we are ancient in Indiana when it comes to voting. We need to revamp the whole system. If this causes us to revamp the voting system in Indiana, I’m very happy. I support people’s unfettered right to vote by mail. I hope that moving forward it’s something that becomes permanent in Indiana.

HPI: Should this no-excuse vote by mail be extended to the November election?

McDermott: Absolutely. If you’re nervous, you shouldn’t have to endanger yourself.