By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — Jean Lushin has been Center Township Trustee since 1982 — a total of eight terms. He’s run unopposed in the past several elections.
This year, he’ll have an opponent in the primary, after retired pastor Rev. Robert A. Lee announced he’ll challenge Lushin for the Democratic nomination.
“I’m not running against the incumbent, I’m running for the office,” Lee said. “I’m convinced I can do it, and do a good job.”
Lee retired this past year as the longtime pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church, and he said he waited to enter politics until retirement to avoid any potential conflicts.
“I’ve been approached several times in 20-plus years, for several positions,” Lee said. “And I don’t move — it may sound cliché or preacher-ish — but I don’t move by the whims of men, I move by the direction of God.”
One of his main aims, if elected, will be accessibility to the low-income individuals served by that office.
“I want to be available and be seen. Everything is tempered by the fact that the office belongs to the people, not to the person,” Lee added.
Lushin hasn’t yet announced whether he’ll run, but the longtime trustee, who twice ran for Kokomo mayor, clearly thinks Lee was recruited to run by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight. Goodnight defeated Lushin in the race for mayor.
“I understand [Lee] was recruited by another public official,” Lushin said. “I’m sorry he’s taking the position that we’re not doing a good enough job at the trustee’s office.”
Howard County Democratic Party Chairman David Tharp said he won’t be endorsing either candidate. He added he won’t endorse in races for offices inside Howard County, only for races in districts which include other counties, such as congressional districts. The only caveat would be if one candidate is clearly unqualified to run, he said.
In this race, there’s no doubt that Lee, who has served on the city park board, sits currently on the board of St. Joseph Hospital, and who has served on dozens of boards and commissions over the years, is a formidable candidate.
Originally from the near-east side of Indianapolis, Lee served in Vietnam and then started working at Eli Lilly & Co. before going to Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Indiana and earning a degree. He came to Kokomo in the early 1980s, when he successfully applied for the pastor’s seat at Second Missionary Baptist.
He dismissed the suggestion that he’d been talked into running by Goodnight or anyone else.
“Nobody puts me up to anything,” Lee said. “People saying that are people who don’t know me.”
Lushin said he hasn’t made up his mind about a bid for a ninth term, but said there are certain things he’d like to accomplish before he leaves office.
“I still believe in some consolidation of township government,” he said, referring to a 2012 attempt to reduce six township trustee offices in Eastern Howard County into two offices. The voters rejected the plan, and Lushin didn’t actively campaign for it, saying it would have been inappropriate since the consolidation didn’t involve Center Township.
Lushin said he also wants to make sure the Goodfellows program, a We Care-funded charity which gives parents vouchers for children’s clothing during the Christmas season, continues to thrive.
But a bigger issue during the campaign could be the sizable surplus Lushin has acquired.
The township had $7.4 million in reserves at the end of 2012. Lushin used to say he was keeping a large balance in case of an economic downturn. Then the economy hit bottom in 2009 and the local unemployment rate hit 19 percent.
But federal money poured in to fill the gap and Lushin’s cash balances not only didn’t dip, they continued to grow at the same pace.
Now Lushin says he’s concerned about future legislation affecting his office. There are no plans to shrink the reserves, which are now three times what the office spends in a year.
Lushin said he’s considered lowering the township tax rates to the point the township would begin to spend down the reserves, but said he’s worried the state wouldn’t let the township raise the tax rate once the reserves were gone.
“It’s not a bad thing to have a surplus,” Lushin said. “Heck, the city just announced it spent 9 percent less than it budgeted for 2013. Tell me, what’s the difference?”
Lee said he’s still considering how to address the surplus.
“We’re not there as a bank, or an investment firm. We’re there to provide service to the people,” Lee said.
Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569, email@example.com or on Twitter @JasonSSmith1