COLUMBIA — Julia Child meets Rosie the Riveter.
That’s how Boone County Southern District Commissioner candidate Karen Miller describes herself. Her Julia Child side comes from 11 years of running her own restaurant, The Establishment, and from filling in for a missing caterer last year at her own campaign banquet. Channeling the famous cook, Miller and her friend Linda Vogt made delicate wontons, which they later served to prospective campaign donors.
Her ability to produce in those high-pressure situations is why Miller also thinks of herself as Rosie the Riveter, an icon of feminine economic power during World War II. It's also why, during her seventh election, she's glad she can put her 20 years of experience as commissioner to use.
"When I first started, people would challenge me all the time, 'what do you know about roads?'" Miller says. "Well, what they didn't know was my background. I was born and raised on a farm, I worked the farm, I married a farmer, I worked more farm, then I worked for a construction crew. I put on shingles, I hung cabinets, I put on doorknobs — whatever needed to be done."
Miller likes that this campaign has been easier. She can spend more time doing the actual job of commissioner in Boone County. She's spent 43 years in the county. This election cycle, she’s had one fundraising dinner for herself and another for Teresa Hensley, the Democratic candidate for Missouri's 4th Congressional District. Miller prepared the food for these events and her partner, David Brown, served it. He likes to help from the sidelines, which allows Miller to work the political scene.
“I’m pretty good at it,” she says. "And (David) kept everything filled. He would go around and make sure all the refill stuff was being done."
Miller has come a long way from the 19-year-old farm bride who once was placed in the Mount Vernon Sanitarium for half a year in high school because she was thought to have tuberculosis. After she got out, Miller wore the prom dress she made in the sanitarium and went stag to the dance.
When she graduated with her bachelor's degree in business administration from Stephens College in 2006, it was the result of hours spent doing homework in hotel rooms and on plane rides after National Association of Counties meetings.
At 60, Miller has spent 22 years with Brown, an Army veteran and contractor she describes as her “rock.” Their anniversary is coming up in December. She counts the years on her magenta-colored fingernails.
Brown supports Miller, of course, but when she comes home to their yellow house in the Old Southwest, they don't necessarily discuss politics.
"If he had his world, there would be no politics in his life," Miller says, laughing. "He just hates the ugliness and the wedge issues that have divided his country."
The couple has never married nor had children. Both divorced, it was “too late” for children, and Miller had debt from owning three businesses weighing her down.
But to say they have no children is not quite true.
“My family is what I do things for,” she says as she holds a silver picture frame filled with pictures of her great-nieces and great-nephews. Since her mother died at age 48, Miller has become the matriarch of the family, and she holds many holidays and get-togethers at her house.
Miller takes her nieces and nephews on trips to Six Flags, and two of her older nieces, Lacey and Courtney, are politically active and have campaigned for her door-to-door.
At a younger age, Miller, too, had national political aspirations. Now she's happy in Boone County.
“I thank God every day that I am in local government, where I am accountable," Miller says. "People stop me in the street, they stop me in the grocery store, they stop me after church. If they have questions, they feel comfortable with that."
County events such as the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival allow her to spend time with neighbors. Clutching a large bag of kettle corn underneath her arm, her piercing green eyes stand out against her black “Karen Miller” T-shirt and Claire McCaskill pin. At her first Hartsburg festival, she walked in the parade with a miniature pony. A seasoned commissioner, she says she doesn't "need the gimmicks" any more and now stands on the sidelines with a fistful of her fliers.
As she walks through the stands, she pauses to say hello to “Miss Pat,” pulling a red cart filled with children, or Tanya Heath, whose daughter is playing with golden retriever puppies.
“She is very well respected,” Heath says of Miller. “She’s a very good commissioner.”
Miller also eyes a stand selling pumpkin rolls, one of her favorite desserts, but decides to stick with her kettle corn. She worries about a jewelry stand selling bracelets at a low price.
“You’re not goin’ out of business, are ya?” she asks.
Miller has seen a lot change in the 20 years she’s been commissioner. She’s constantly reminded of her age when she speaks with young people who weren’t alive when St. Charles Road was gravel.
In her personal time, Miller mentors young women as part of the Stephens College Full Circle Mentor Program.
One of her students is Megan Browning, who is now a graduate.
When Miller found out that Browning was studying public relations, she threw "a party with a purpose," and invited all of her own public relations contacts. Over hors d'oeuvres, Browning was able to mingle and network.
"Karen was a great mentor," Browning said. "We frequented the Coffee Zone, a local favorite of Karen's. We would talk about everything from resume building to potential jobs around the area."
Cara Christianson nominated Miller for an award from the ATHENA International Women's Leadership Organization, a nonprofit that strives to inspire women to reach their full potential. Miller won, and the award now sits on her desk.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.