A muddy, nasty race for auditor

Joel Miller (left) and Joe Stutler.
Joel Miller (left) and Joe Stutler.

Maybe you’ve been out hiking and the trail before you suddenly turns to muddy muck. Find another way around? Avoid the whole mess entirely? Roll up your pants and wade in?

Well, my trail led me to Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Linn County Auditor. My pants are rolled up as I type.

It’s been a muddy affair, to say the least, between incumbent Democrat Joel Miller, auditor for more than nine years, and his challenger Joe Stutler, a veteran active in numerous veterans’ causes. And during the past week or so, with Tuesday’s vote approaching, the nastiness dial is set at 11.

Last week, in a speech to the Linn County Democratic Central Committee, Miller told the group he has been getting “questions about my opponent’s military record.” Miller brought along his own Army service record, and challenged Stutler to release his.

Stutler put his records online this week, along with a scathing statement declaring Miller “Apparently ... has no shame, no basic human decency” and is “unfit for duty, unfit for office, unfit to serve.”

They do agree on one thing. The campaign’s tone is the other guy’s fault.

“I think he’s trying to make it nasty,” Miller said defending his request for Stutler’s records. “I’m not reciprocating.”

“I can challenge him to show his. And I’ll show mine. I have nothing to hide,” Miller said.

“I’ve tried to focus on issues and he’s tried to make it personal,” said Stutler, who said he felt “blindsided” by Miller’s service records gambit. “I’m a war veteran. I’m not going to put up with somebody like that impugning my service to my nation over purely personal reasons, especially in the run up to Memorial Day weekend.”

Stutler has strong backing from numerous Democratic elected officials who have locked horns over the years with Miller over issues both substantive and trivial. Stutler says Miller was a watchdog who has become a “junkyard dog,” that “barks his fool head off at everything and bites anything that will get near.”

Miller faced a similar challenge four years ago when his critics backed Democrat Jim Houser in the primary and Republican Garth Fagerbakke in the general election. After Miller won handily, the Board of Supervisors handed a big chunk of his duties to Fagerbakke. The hatchet would not be buried. Now, Miller says his fellow county officials are “desperate to throw off the yoke of transparency and accountability in county government.”

Bad blood colors every corner of the race.

Supervisor Brent Oleson, a Stutler backer, circulated two pages of what he called the “official guide” Miller’s employees must use to communicate with the auditor. Miller says they’re really pages from a private DISC personality test he took six years ago, Miller has now filed a complaint with the Iowa Supreme Court claiming Oleson mischaracterized the status of his law license. Oleson said it’s Miller’s characterization that’s flat wrong.

Stutler says Miller is a “crap Democrat” in name only who encouraged Republicans to challenge Democrats. Miller says Stutler and his backers are using Trump-like tactics. The list goes on.

The bad news for Stutler is many voters seem to relish the fact Miller is disliked by other officials. The bad news for Miller is Stutler’s challenge seems far more aggressive and organized than Houser’s in 2012.

The bad news for the rest of us is that no one involved seems willing to rise above this petty, pathetic muck of recrimination and retribution.

The good news? I’m not a Democratic primary voter.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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