July 24, 2008

Political Role Got Spark From Wilson

By Sara Semelka, Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo.

Jul. 24--Karen Miller was not particularly active in politics in her early years, but her involvement in a whirlwind campaign for future Gov. Roger Wilson's state Senate seat gave her the political bug.

It was the late 1970s, and Miller was office manager for Wulff Brothers Construction Co.

"Bill Wulff is Roger Wilson's uncle," Miller said. "When" Wilson "decided to run for special Senate seat, my office became his headquarters. ... That got me hooked."

In 1981, Miller opened and managed a bar and grill called The Establishment. She remained active in the county politics, lending a hand on the campaigns of Sheriff Ted Boehm, county Assessor Tom Schauwecker and Presiding County Commissioner Don Stamper.

When Democratic Party members at her eatery in the early '90s were discussing an open seat on the Boone County Commission, Miller figured she could do better than other contenders. "It was just a spur of the moment, not something planned by any means," she said.

Sixteen years later, Miller is seeking her fifth term as Southern District Boone County commissioner, facing a Democratic primary challenge by Sid Sullivan. No Republican has filed in the race, so the Aug. 5 election will determine the officeholder.

Yesterday at an NAACP forum, Miller said she has built a network of contacts during her tenure and service as president of the National Association of Counties, or NACO.

"I know people throughout the country, in Congress, and I have those contacts in my Rolodex," she told the forum. "If I need to know something about a problem we're dealing with, I have contacts someone coming in new wouldn't have."

When she came on board, Miller said, there were only two or three computers in the entire county government. "We didn't have a clue as a county where we needed to be," she said. "I think my work at the national level really helped me to understand what other governmental bodies were doing to enhance citizen participation by just making information available from their own home."

Crowded county offices have been an issue during Miller's tenure, and the county commission has taken heat for not having a specific plan when buying downtown properties such as the former Lifestyles store, law offices, the former Guarantee Land Title building and the Johnston Paint Building.

"We're going to need the space, whether we're using existing buildings or we build new ones," Miller said of the county's downtown real estate. "And it's less costly to do what we're doing than ... it is to knock down a bunch of buildings by buying them and then building. ... Who knows what's going to happen 25 or 30 years from now? The commission at that time at least has some options on how to meet the space needs."

Miller said the most important thing for the county is to build a comprehensive economic development plan. Boone County has been insulated from economic downturns, but now it has been hit hard, she said. "I don't see the slow-down changing for a year or two, but I think it's an opportunity to work with," she said. "REDI, the chambers" of commerce, "the Regional Planning Commission, all of these pieces are working, but there's not an overarching plan for Boone County."

Miller said she has learned that other communities applying for state economic development grants have more cohesive plans with input from the business community, government, school board and universities. She said she would like the county to take the lead in developing such relationships.

Miller said she has realized that many people in the urban areas of the county don't fully understand what county government functions are. "People say to me, What have you done for me lately?' " she said. "Well, by not raising taxes, by trying to keep the budget under control, by giving you one of the best court services in the country, by allowing the elected officials to enhance their operations through technology, by putting together proper packages to take to the voters so they have an option if they want to improve what we're doing, I think you're giving to people every day through different kinds of services."

Miller's campaign team is made up of people who have believed in her since her first run.

Myrtle Rapp, former board member of the Boone County Fire Protection District, worked on Miller's first campaign and each one since. "I think her ability to stick to a project -- she doesn't start one and not finish -- has made her a good leader," she said.

Carol Kiel, who has known Miller since the 1980s, is among her campaign volunteers. "She's not a fair-weather friend. She hangs in for the storm," Kiel said.

or [email protected]


To see more of the Columbia Daily Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbiatribune.com/.

Copyright (c) 2008, Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.