On a late September morning, Boone County Commission candidate Mike Asmus hops off his red-white-and-blue bike and begins a trek up his first driveway of the day. With colorful political leaflets and a confident smile, Asmus rings the doorbell and introduces himself to an older man in a green shirt, who listens politely but seems only mildly interested in county politics.
Later that day at the annual Boone County Volunteer Reception, Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller greets guests with small talk and a handshake. She exhibits an unflappable knack for names and a deep knowledge of county business.
Although this day is just a small snapshot of the 2004 campaign for Boone County Southern District Commissioner, it nonetheless accurately captures the main theme of this race: Miller’s experience versus Asmus’ hustle.
Miller, a 52-year-old Democrat from Columbia, has held her seat for 11 years and recently served as president of the National Association of Counties. Asmus, a 39-year-old Republican from Ashland, is mayor protempore of Ashland and a member of the Ashland Board of Aldermen. He has little experience in county politics but has taken a leave of absence from his job as a speechwriter in the Missouri Senate to campaign, ringing at least 900 doorbells each week in person.
At stake in the race is a seat on the three-member commission that is responsible for decisions about the county’s budget; its tax policies, land-use and zoning issues; and road construction and maintenance.
The winner will represent the interests of the southern half the county for a four-year term at an annual salary of $75,254.
To keep her seat, Miller is campaigning hard, too, posting signs and recruiting a group of volunteers to go door to door. She has set aside more than $15,000 for a spurt of campaigning and advertising leading up to Nov. 2.
Miller said she wants another term to make sure county voters renew a half-cent sales tax in 2007 that she describes as a crucial funding mechanism to pay for maintenance and construction of county roads and to keep property taxes down.
She also would like to see the county form a storm-water utility to deal with flooding and water quality. Addressing the county’s space crunch is another priority, she said. A task force is reviewing a proposal for a $15 million bond issue that would expand the courthouse, finish the third floor of the Boone County Government Center and build a new office facility to replace the Johnson Building.
Asmus said recent county tax increases have been unreasonable. He wants the county to wait for growth and development to bring in more revenue through an expanded tax base.
He also believes the county should trim projects such as the 1999 acquisition of the Boone County Fairgrounds to concentrate more on basic responsibilities such as roads and law enforcement.
“Infrastructure, I believe, is the commission’s single biggest direct responsibility,” Asmus said.
Just six years ago, however, it would have been more likely to hear Asmus talking about checkered flags than potholed streets. That’s because Asmus was managing a professional road-race team. The team finished second in its circuit in 1999 but shut down soon after that.
Both candidates have traveled long roads on their way to this year’s race for commissioner.
Miller, who was born in Gary, Ind., came to Boone County in 1970 to attend college at MU. She soon left, however, and moved to Kirksville where she went to work doing odd jobs and “burger-flipping stuff.” Since then, Miller has worked as an office manager, a bartender and a construction worker.
In 1982, three years after she moved back to Boone County, Miller opened a Columbia-area restaurant named The Establishment, which she ran until her election to the commission in 1992.
She is a member of the National Association of Counties, a group based in Washington, D.C.,that lobbies nationally for county governments. InJuly, Miller ended a one-year term as president of that organization.
Asmus, like Miller, is not a native Missourian. He was born in Aurora, Ill., and was raised in Milwaukee. After two years at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin, he accepted a job as a parts manager for a farm-equipment company. Asmus moved to Boone County in 1990. In addition to his stints as a speechwriter and race-team manager, he has been a production supervisor for a software company, a human resources director at a pipe-making company and the editor of a business magazine.
His experience in Ashland government, he said, has prepared him well for county office. “I have done much of what the county commission does, albeit on a smaller scale,” he said.
If elected, Asmus would join a commission charged with the formidable task of keeping county services on par with unprecedented population growth. That means more roads to pave, more work for the sheriff’s department and more cases in court.
Miller said increased use of technology should be part of the solution. She cited a computer system that allows the assessor’s office to alphabetize records, which frees up employees for other jobs and avoids the need to hire additional people on the taxpayer’s dime.
“We do it every day,” Miller said.
Asmus thinksthe county can stretch its revenue by avoiding mistakes in road work and other projects, which require costly repairs. To do this, he said, the commission needs to monitor the Public Works Department to ensure it is doing its job.
Asmus said he also blames some county problems on Miller’s absences caused by her duties as president of the National Association of Counties.
“It’s a full-time job. … They’re not expecting their commissioner to take on the presidency of a national association that takes them out of the district,” Asmus said.
Miller, however, said that her service to the association has given Boone County a greater say at higher levels of government and that because of e-mail and other technology, her presidency did not take away from her ability to complete her duties as commissioner.
“I beg anybody to find something that fell through the cracks while I was gone,” Miller said.
Some Boone County voters seem less interested in issues such as space needs or Miller’s work outside the county and more interested concerned with roads and accessibility.
“I want a commissioner who will listen,” said Stacie Houston, a resident of southern Columbia. “I want someone who will do what they say they’re going to do in a proper timeframe.”
Chuck Headley, also a resident of southern Columbia and president of the Columbia Board of Education, said he’s most concerned with basic services.
“The road conditions are certainly a priority,” Headley said.
And, in a race this local, personal relationships can play a role, too.
Mary Anne Dugan of Ashland said she will definitely vote for Miller because she has met the candidate numerous times.
“I haven’t really seen anything she has done wrong,” Dugan said.
Miller’s term began almost by accident.
It was during a 1992 brunch at her restaurant that somebody broke the news that the Democratic incumbent on the commission, Patsy Dalton, would not run for re-election. Miller asked who would run in Dalton’s place, but none of the names that came up satisfied her.
“I said, ‘I can’t support any of those people. I can do a better job than them,’” Miller said. “I said, ‘I just might run.’ Just off the cuff like that.”
One of the men at the brunch told Miller she could sign up immediately.
“So, he goes out to the car and gets the paperwork,” Miller said.
After a bit of research, Miller signed up and soon won her first election.
For Asmus, the road to his first commission race has been much more deliberate. He formed a candidate committee more than a year ago and officially filed in March.
Asmus has been campaigning door to door for eight hours every other day and will continue to do so until Election Day.
“I’ve even forgotten my mom’s birthday in the last year,” Asmus said jokingly of his commitment. “You just get more single focused.”
He hopes the aggressive schedule will be enough to overcome Miller’s advantage in fund-raising. Miller said the amount of money donated to a campaign is a good barometer of community support.
“I’m a lot more concerned with getting votes than getting money to buy yard signs,” Asmus said.
The campaigning, however, hasn’t been without its bumps and surprises, Asmus said. One middle-aged woman abruptly shut the door of her townhouse, saying, “We don’t vote for you,” before Asmus could even finish saying his name.
“That one totally caught me off guard,” Asmus said, pondering exactly what the woman meant. A few houses later, though, Asmus and his bike were back in full campaign mode.
“That stuff really doesn’t discourage me,” Asmus said.