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Election fallout: Why did Terry Miller get beat?

Harrison County Commissioner Terry L. Miller’s support on two riverboat revenue issues – a new, $30 million county-owned, county-controlled hospital and a $513,000 animal control facility – may well have caused his narrow defeat in last Tuesday’s election.
Or was it simply time for a change in the majority of the voters’ opinions?
Newly-elected Republican Commissioner Jim Heitkemper thinks so. “I find myself realizing today the same style of narrow victory as President George Bush in 2000 and JFK in 1960,” Heitkemper said. “One-half of the voters did not vote at all. Barely one-fourth of the eligible voters did vote for me.”
After 13-1/2 years as Third District commissioner and three election victories, Miller, a Democrat, lost his bid for a fourth term to Heitkemper, a farmer, home improvement contractor and political novice, by 112 votes.
“In a race that close, anything could have tipped it either way,” Miller said yesterday. “But everybody I’ve talked to didn’t see it coming.”
“I think the biggest issue was that he had enough time in there,” Heitkemper said. “I think that one weighs the most, and that the voters were willing to give me a chance, that change is good.”
Heitkemper added: “I think it’s important for him (Miller) to realize there was nothing he could do about that. He should take comfort in the fact it was the duration of time, that people felt it was time for a change. That’s not his fault.”
Steve Haggard, chairman of the Harrison County Democratic Central Committee, said the number of years in office can work against a politician. “The only thing I can think of is that he was there 13-1/2 years and going for his fourth term.
“I’m saying, probably, that was the only thing,” Haggard said. “You can’t be in office as long as he has been without making some people happy one day, and the next day they’re mad … I think Terry worked hard at his job. He was knowledgeable, but people can be fickle.
“You can’t win in that job,” said Haggard, a former councilman who went through the same defeat two years ago, after serving one term as commissioner. “I think Terry did a good job. I sat up there with him, and I think he did a good job.
“You don’t always get a pat on the back,” Haggard said. “Sometimes you just get kicked in the butt.”
But to many others, the answer is not that simple.
Republican Marian Pearcy of Laconia, a Corydon attorney who regularly attends government meetings that are videotaped by her husband, Ed, said she believes Miller’s demeanor was sometimes arrogant. “I think he stepped on too many people’s toes,” she said.
That’s not a problem limited to any one politician of any party, she added. “I think they all get overblown with their importance. They have some idea they are above us.
“Heitkemper seems to be a gentle, sweet person right now,” Pearcy said. “I shudder to think what will happen to him.”
Her advice to him is “not to forget he’s a servant of the people.”
The animal control center, or lack of it, is but one reason for Miller’s demise, said several people this reporter interviewed. Republican Tom Powers of Lanesville, who lost a race to State Rep. Paul Robertson, D-Depauw, said he believes Miller’s hold-out for a $513,000 animal control shelter was a major factor.
“If I had to bet on it, I would bet that more voters didn’t want to spend that much for an animal shelter,” Powers said. “Most would prefer the thrifty approach to an animal shelter,” such as the $300,000 the council is willing to spend.
“I support an animal shelter, but I want the thrifty one,” Powers said.
Democratic Councilman Carl (Buck) Mathes of Corydon said he believes several factors, including animal control, caused Miller’s surprising defeat and gave control of the board of commissioners to the Republicans.
“There’s a hard-core group for the center and against it,” Mathes said. “I think Terry Miller caught the wrath of both.”
Supporters of the facility were angry that nothing’s been done, while opponents see the commissioners as being in favor of one. “He lost some votes there,” Mathes said.
Was the animal shelter issue alone enough to mandate the change? “No,” said Mathes. “Smaller factions kept whittling away at his popularity, and he suffered for it.”
The commissioners support for a new county-owned hospital also hurt to an extent, Mathes believes.
“I think our county is pretty well split down the middle on the number of people that wants the hospital and the people that don’t,” he said. “Any time you have that situation, politicians are going to get votes on both sides.
“It’s one of those Catch-22’s; you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
With the animal shelter and the hospital, Mathes said Miller faced a “no-win” situation. “He did what he thought was best for the county, and he stuck with it, and I admire him for that, but he paid the price.”
Larry Shickles, head of the Harrison County Republican Central Committee, said he believes the lack of a consensus between the council and commissioners on the animal control issue may have hurt Miller. Comments he heard indicated support for a shelter but not so much one proposal over another. “What they wanted was, rather than resistance, some coming together,” Shickles said.
But a decision on helping to finance a new hospital, plans for which surfaced just last year, may be premature, Shickles said.
“I don’t know the answers, but maybe the squeaky wheel is not the answer,” Shickles said. “But I think we have to resolve the animal shelter.”
Miller is not turned off by his defeat. He said he would file for office again if the deadline were tomorrow.
“If you care about your community and you want to make a difference, that’s the place you can do it,” he said. “For 13-1/2 years, I think I did make a difference, and I think it was a positive difference and positive change.
“I lived and breathed it.”
Next week: What can we expect from a Republican controlled board of commissioners and county council?