Rep. Pete Visclosky: In Gary, A Safe Democratic Incumbent, Scandals And All

10/19/2010 06:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CROWN POINT, Ind. — As a long-serving member of Congress in what's shaping up to be a very bad year for incumbents and his Democratic Party, Rep. Pete Visclosky should probably be planning for life after politics. But he's not.

Visclosky, who is running for a 14th congressional term, has been linked to a Justice Department probe into ties between members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and a lobbying firm and its defense contractor clients, and though a House panel cleared him, the federal investigation continues.

But Visclosky's 1st Congressional District lies in a working class region near Chicago that is no stranger to corruption and doesn't look kindly on Republicans despite Indiana's reputation as a red state. The area hasn't sent a Republican to Congress since 1928, and it doesn't appear that streak will be broken this year.

"The rest of the state fervently distrusts Democrats and this part of the state fervently distrusts Republicans," said Joe Moore, a 31-year-old attorney from Merrillville who said northwest Indiana aligns more with Chicago. "I think there's a feeling we're our own area."

Visclosky faces Republican Mark Leyva on Nov. 2 for a fifth straight time, along with Libertarian Jeff Duensing. In Leyva's four previous tries against Visclosky, the 51-year-old carpenter from Highland has never received more than 31 percent of the vote. He's had little success at fundraising, and while the GOP is pouring money into races in Indiana's 2nd, 8th and 9th district races, officials say the 1st District isn't a wise investment.

Republicans have fared poorly in northwest Indiana largely because of the area's powerful Democratic political machine, which discourages Republicans from running.

"They put Chicago, in some ways, to shame," said Maurice Eisenstein, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University Calumet. "There will be more competition from Republicans for mayor of Chicago next year than there will be here anytime soon."

Visclosky has gone largely unchallenged since he was first elected in 1984. He hasn't faced a primary opponent since 2002, and that opponent lived well outside the district.

Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, the Lake County Democratic chairman, said Democrats with political aspirations know better than to run against Visclosky.

"They know they're taking a risk with the rest of their political career if they run against Pete and lose, which is a pretty good possibility," he said. "If you lose, you're not going to have any help."

Visclosky, a former lawyer and congressional aide, has spent much of his time in Congress quietly representing his district. He has shunned the media spotlight and worked hard to keep his personal life private. When he married for the second time in early 2008, he announced the planned wedding but divulged no details.

Robert Kennedy once described Lake County, a part of Visclosky's district, to be one of the nation's most corrupt. Visclosky successfully avoided being tied to scandal until last year, when his involvement with now-defunct defense lobbying firm PMA Group was disclosed.

A former defense lobbyist who helped clients secure more than $100 million in contracts pleaded guilty last month to illegally funneling more than $380,000 in campaign contributions to House members controlling the Pentagon's budget. In 2007 and 2008 alone, Visclosky and two other top Democrats the lobbyist worked with – John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Jim Moran of Virginia – directed $137 million in defense contracts to the lobbyist's clients.

No congressmen have been criminally charged or found to have violated House rules, but the lawmakers' actions have been criticized by outside ethics watchdog groups. Visclosky was subpoenaed a year ago in the ongoing Justice Department probe and acknowledged that a federal grand jury had demanded documents from his office, some employees and his campaign committees.

Visclosky refused repeated interview requests from The Associated Press. But he told the Post-Tribune in Merrillville recently that the Justice Department has never called him.

"I have conducted myself properly," Visclosky told the newspaper's editorial board. "I have had the standards committee take a look at all of our records, and they have found nothing improper."

The scandal doesn't seem to have hurt Visclosky's image among many constituents.

Wesley Minton, 61, of Valparaiso called Visclosky a "man of good character" and said he thought the PMA investigation was a personal attack.

Ed Sperka, 71, a retired beer sales manager from Merrillville who was waiting for his wife to cast an early ballot in Crown Point recently, expects Visclosky to stick around.

"He's planted too many seeds in the area and helped too many people," he said.