St. Joseph County commissioner race features two who formerly worked behind the scenes | Elections

The District 3 seat on the Board of Commissioners seat became a hinge for the county GOP in 2012.

That was the year a Republican won the seat, giving the party a majority on the board for the first time in recent memory. Now Deb Fleming is defending the seat she helped to win for her party.

Fleming, 60, a longtime Mishawaka dentist, has become well known in local Republican politics over the past decade and during the past six years as commissioner.

She serves as vice president of the board and consistently votes with Kostielney to approve projects and expenditures often opposed by Thomas, such as on matters related to a new county finance software system, the industrial complex plan and the leaf program.

Her opponent is well known locally, too. Democrat Hodge Patel, 47, of South Bend, was an area representative for former U.S. lawmakers for more than 20 years.

The race in District 3 shaped up early this year when both Fleming and Patel filed for the seat, and each ran unopposed in the primary election. District 3 covers Mishawaka, the River Park area of South Bend and part of Osceola.

The three officials who comprise the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners are elected fr…

Fleming likes to talk about her roots in Mishawaka, where her grandmother worked at the old Ball Band factory for 40 years and both of her parents attended Mishawaka High School.

Fleming also graduated from MHS and like her dad, the late Robert Sriver Sr., was a high school athlete and became a local dentist, too, after earning her degree in dental medicine at the University of Kentucky, which she attended on a volleyball scholarship.

Late last year she sold her practice, Princess City Dental Care, to an associate. She still works part time as a dentist.

Fleming is married to Robert Schell and together they have four grown children.

Her local political career has evolved in the past decade, starting with a lost bid for a County Council seat in 2010.

In 2012, Fleming was chairwoman of the county GOP when she propelled Mishawaka Common Council member Marsha McClure to win the District 3 seat, creating a Republican majority on the board for “the first time in 40 years,” Fleming said.

When McClure resigned in 2014, Fleming was caucused in to fill the vacancy. In 2016, she won election to the seat.

She’s one of just two women currently elected to top county posts. The other is Democrat Diana Hess on the nine-member County Council.

“I was shocked at how backward everything was,” Fleming said of when she began examining the nuts and bolts of how county government ran.

She points to technology improvements she has supported in recent years, including updates to the county website and telephone and payroll systems.

Other work she cites as progress during her tenure on the board are building improvements at the jail and Juvenile Justice Center; instituting regular county department head meetings; the creation of a county logo; and better labeling and locator maps so visitors to county buildings can find their way around.

Fleming, who represents the commissioners on the Michiana Area Council of Governments, said wants to move forward with efforts started last year to create a more “age friendly” community with affordable housing and transportation for older adults. At the same time, she said, she wants to promote economic development for jobs that will keep local college graduates local.

Fleming said she supported the proposed compromise on the industrial plan near New Carlisle. She feels “more comfortable” with the proposed ordinance for face mask violation fines after it was amended so individuals could not be fined.

This year, Fleming spearheaded an informal group to brainstorm ideas on a cheaper way for the county to offer leaf pickup after the often troubled program was essentially chopped because of budget concerns. The result was a county-subsidized program that allows residents to access cheaper rates from the sole, longtime vendor who bid to provide the service. It’ll cost the county about $400,000 for the season versus nearly $2 million. Fleming said she thought it was important to offer some type of service to encourage residents not to burn leaves during a respiratory pandemic, which many do despite a county ban on burning.

“I just want to help people,” Fleming often says about her work as a commissioner.

Fleming cited her schedule officiating high school volleyball games in declining an invitation from the local League of Women Voters to debate Patel. She has participated in league events in the past.

Patel was disappointed not to have a chance to debate Fleming. He was among a group of four local Democratic candidates who recently accused their Republican opponents of hiding from voters because they declined debate invitations from the league.

Patel has lived in South Bend since 1979 and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1997 with a degree in economics and political science.

An internship with former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer his senior year of college launched Patel on a career in politics and public service. He went to work for Roemer as a field representative for several years, followed by positions as a regional director for former Democratic Indiana governor and U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh and former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Joe Donnelley.

Much of his work for lawmakers, Patel said, involved cutting through bureaucratic red tape for constituents, and connecting individuals and businesses with the right resources at the local, state and federal levels.

“I know what levers to pull in order to get a problem solved,” Patel said. “I like the problem-solving aspect of (public service). When folks don’t get attention on something that frustrates me.”

Recently he went to bat for an Osceola man who sought his help to refocus county attention on an unresolved street pavement problem. He said he’s been seeking federal money, possibly through MACOG, for better safety barriers on a double track railroad crossing near Osceola after hearing about a fatality there.

Because of his work with federal legislators, Patel said some people might say “Hodge is Washington,” but he feels very “South Bend.” He’s never owned a house or apartment in D.C., Patel said, nor is he a registered lobbyist there or in Indiana.

The part-time commissioner’s job, he said, would let him “fulfill my passion” for public service while also managing family and career here.

Patel is married to Ali Oesch Patel, a local jewelry maker and boutique owner, and they collectively have four children between the ages of 2 and 8.

Last fall, Saint Joseph Health System hired him as director of political advocacy. He also has a part-time business, Capitol Consulting Solutions, offering government relations, political strategy and other services, he said.

If elected, Patel said he’s “that guy who’s going to work in the middle” to find a “reasonable” solution to problems. He’d focus on fixing 911 dispatch problems and on reaching out to county employees to job shadow and better understand functions and needs.

One way the county might maximize financial resources, he said, would to pool purchasing power with other municipalities on items governments regularly buy, such as vehicles. Another would be to take a “scalpel” to the budget to cut possible fat, which in his view could include the leaf pickup program.

Patel thinks the proposed deal on the size of the Indiana Enterprise Center and the rezoning that followed amounted to a “reasonable” compromise, although he thinks the planning process needs to be more “transparent.” Concerning the proposed ordinance on mask fines, he said he would support a “reasonable” enforcement mechanism.

Patel said his parents were both born in Africa but exiled in 1972 by former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin because of their Indian ancestry. They wound up in Chicago, then South Bend.

Their experience having to flee with some money in their pockets, leaving behind a business and the life they’d made, made an impression on him. Ever since he was 18, he’s made a point to vote, he said.

“It’s been important for me to be involved … because I don’t want to go down silently,” Patel said. “You want to have a voice, and democracy’s important.”

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