Leaving a legacy: Helen Miller to retire from legislature after 16 years

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen

After 16 years in the Iowa legislature, state Rep. Helen Miller can look around Fort Dodge and see the results of her work in the state Capitol.

Just south of town, the Gypsum City Off-Highway Vehicle Park continues to grow and attract riders. The Fort Dodge Democrat wrote a liability law that made the park possible.

Across town, the biofuels testing lab at Iowa Central Community College is outgrowing its space. Miller helped secure the state funding needed to start the lab.

And she’s eagerly awaiting the October completion of U.S. Highway 20 as a four-lane route all across Iowa, a goal she’s worked for since taking office in 2003.

Miller is looking back at all those things with pride as she enters the final months of her last year in office.

“I wanted to see this district do well,” she said.

Miller made an impact beyond the House district she represented.

She served 14 years on the House Agriculture Committee and is now the first minority to serve as ranking member of that panel.

In 2011, she established the Urban Ag Institute which seeks to teach minority lawmakers and those from urban areas about agriculture.

“They don’t know anything about it,” she said.

That program will continue as the Helen Miller Agricultural Institute, but her days of committee meetings and roll call votes in the state Capitol are over.

She decided not to seek re-election this year. Democrat Megan Srinivas and Republican Ann Meyer, both of Fort Dodge, are vying to replace her in the November election.

“I had done everything, pretty much,” she said.

Miller said she’ll miss the people she worked with, but there’s not much else that she’ll miss about the legislature after her term ends early next year.

“That’s the thing that tells me it’s truly time,” she said of her decision to retire.

Miller was new to the community when she ran for her first term in 2002. She and her husband, the late Dr. Ed Miller, had moved to Fort Dodge after he retired from the United States Air Force two years earlier.

“I think it was something that I wanted to do and I felt I had a contribution to make,” she said of her decision to run for the House seat in the district that includes Fort Dodge and northern Webster County.

Miller made economic development and the completion of U.S. Highway 20 as a four-lane route all across Iowa the primary themes of her first campaign. She defeated Republican Richard “Ike” Nelson, who was a Fort Dodge city councilman at the time, to win her first term.

She won seven more elections, including two in which she ran unopposed.

Miller said helping empower local people was her guiding principle in the legislature.

She added that when people came to her with complaints or problems, her response was always “what are we going to do together to fix this?”

“I never made promises that I was going to do this or do that,” she added.

Miller said she’s been “an ambassador for black folks,” but added that her work transcends race.

“It’s not color-coded for me,” she said. “I think I have a voice that can speak for anybody and everybody.”

She described herself as “not your standard African-American that you just throw out there.”

According to Miller, her pursuit of a seat on the House Agriculture Committee was an unconventional move at a time when many black lawmakers get on the Education, Human Services and Judiciary committees. But Miller said the ag panel was “the most logical place for me” because of the importance of agriculture to her district.

“Fort Dodge is the poster child for economic development through agriculture throughout the United States,” she said.

Miller is an attorney who had no background in agriculture when she was elected. But she proved willing to talk to anybody and go just about anywhere to learn about farming. As her own knowledge grew, she realized that lawmakers in urban areas across the country needed to learn about farming, too. So in 2011, she convened the first urban ag academy, bringing a handful of city legislators to Iowa to learn about the farms where their food comes from.

The program has been held every year since and has evolved into the Helen Miller Agricultural Institute.

Miller established the Artful Dodger project in Fort Dodge and carried her art interest into the legislature. She displayed works created through the Artful Dodger project in the state Capitol and held an art breakfast at which lawmakers could learn about the importance of the arts.

In 2015, Miller received the Herbert Hoover Uncommon Public Service Award from the Hoover Presidential Foundation.

“Like President Hoover, Rep. Miller understands the importance of leadership and a commitment to provide a greater understanding of art and culture to Iowans,” state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said in presenting the award to Miller. “She understands the value of generosity, honor, passion, compassion and integrity.”

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Miller to be honored at two events

State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, will be honored at two events this weekend.

There will be a reception beginning at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Willow Ridge Golf Course, 1788 Madison Ave.

There will be an appreciation service for Miller beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday at Second Baptist Church, 1827 Fourth Ave. S. The churches and the community will share in the service, according to organizer Sherry Washington.

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