Emilie Miller recalls that when she was running for the chairmanship of the Fairfax County Democratic Party, one of her detractors charged that she was too sexy to hold the office.
"What that meant, I think, is that I didn't have enough brains to do the job," she said last week, talking with more than a year's experience as a Fairfax Democratic leader behind her. "Now I've proven I've got the brains. I'll only start worrying when people stop saying I'm attractive."
That probably won't be anytime soon. Dressed in a clinging Diane von Furstenberg dress with a scooped neckline, a yellow silk rose hanging at her neck, and the scent of perfume trailing behind her, Emilie Miller looked like the fashion buyer she became in her 20s instead of the local political leader she is now at age 40.
She says she enjoys being a woman; she calls working in politics fun. But the first thing that strikes one about Emilie Miller, besides her meticulously groomed good looks, is that to her, fun means achievement, no matter what field it is in.
Consider her background: single out as a talented artist and sent to an art institute in her home town of Chicago while still in grammar school; chosen winner of more than one beauty contest while in high school, where she was valedictorian of her senior class; elected a national officer of the Junior Achievment organization, in which she is still active, and was graduated with honors from Drake University at Des Moines, Iowa, where she got her education entirely on academic scholarships.
"People take one look at me and think I'm not very smart," she said with a 'what-can-I-do expression.' "All I say is if you work hard, use your brains and do a good job, you won't have any problems. And I haven't."
Miller says she loves all the requirements of being Fairfax Democratic chairman. "It's exciting to know people are coming to you; candidates are coming to you," she says. The grass roots political organization calls up business skills she acquired working as a retail buyer for major department stores in Boston, Chicago and Washington D.C. The public relations aspects of the non-salaried job she says are second nature to her, since she "thrives" on meeting people.
Nominally, the job as chairman of the Fairfax Democratic Committee - the largest in Virginia, having nearly 500 members - is to keep the local party functioning smoothly by [WORD ILLEGIBLE] issues supported by the Fairfax committee, encouraging Democratic candidates to run, and getting those candidates elected.
That job embraces a lot of duties ranging from the nuts and bolts of identity voters, coordinating meetings and fundraisers by telephone and conducting the party meetings held every other month, to the public relations tasks of appearing at Democratic functions both locally and statewide as a spokesman for the Fairfax Democratic contingent.
Miller says she goes to at least one Democratic function a week, and usually about three. This week she is out every night, as the local committee gears up for this fall's race for governor, lieutentant governor, attorney general and delegates.
She is on the phone so often that her husband, Dean Miller, a deputy comptroller for the currency in the Treasury Department, bought her an automatic telephone message recorder. She met her husband through the Young Democrats at Drake. Her paperwork, which is mostly letter writing and studying the legalities of conventions, mass meetings and elections, is constant. She has testified in the General Assembly on concerns of the Fairfax Democrats and sits on the state's central Democratic committee.
"I love this work, but I've never considered running for public office," she said. "I like introducing the issues better than voting on them. My interests range from art to mental health, and I'm active locally in both concerns. I want to be able to stay active in my own interests."
Miller, who was elected chairman in January 1976, is the second woman to serve as country Democratic chairman, at least in the memory of other county Democratic leaders. Her term expires in December. She says she doesn't know if whe will run again, but that she would like to serve another term as chairman.
Many of her colleagues say she has an excellent chance of being reelected, based on her past performance. Some say she may even run unopposed, as did Jane Vitray, the first woman chairman of the Fairfax Democratic committee who served a four-year term that ended in 1974.
Some call Miller ambitious and say she is an attention-seeker: "Showing up at all those Democratic functions unescorted (her husband falls under the Hatch Act) looking like a movie star," according to one party member. Like Miller, most officers in Fairfax Democratic Party are women, possibly because of the Hatch Act that excludes many Fairfax men from partisan politics.
Others accuse her of partisanship, saying that although she makes no public endorsements of candidates, her preference for Andy Miller was clear in the June primary. Miller says she showed no favoritism; that she was invited to more Miller functions than those for Henry Howell.
Regardless of criticisms some Fairfax Democrats level at Miller, all agree she is one of the most hard working, organized and efficient chairman the committee has ever had: "People recognize when something is running smoothly, when things that are supposed to get done really get done," said Lee District Democratic chairman Pixie Bell. "They are aware that Emilie is responsible for that efficiency. You just be chairman and not have some enemies."
"You have to work harder to prove yourself if you are a woman," said Miller. "People expect women to make the chairmanship a full time job, which is what it is for me. For men, the chairmanship is secondary to their careers."
Miller quit working as a department manager for Woodward and Lothrop mid-60s when her daughter Desiree, 12, now was born.
"I wanted to be a good mother," she said, "but I got bored very fast. So I began working in the Democratic Party at the precinct level. I was pretty heavily involved with the party when my son (Edward, now 5) was born, so all he knows is a political mother. Democratic headquarters is a second home to my kids. Desiree's teacher doesn't believe she knows Chuck Robb."
The unscheduled nature of party work allows Miller to do much of work from her split-level home in the Mantua area of Fairfax County and spend time with her children. When Emilie goes to meetings, her husband is the babysitter.
State Senator Adelard Brault admires Miller as an "efficient, level-headed leader.
"She is one of many Fairfax women who have moved into politics because, simply enough, they get things done," he said. "Emilie, however, has a special way of bridging gaps between the most conservative and most liberal elements of the committee. She also has improved the county's relationship with Democrats elsewhere in the state, and that relationship hasn't always been so good."
Miller says she considers most of her functions as "just an extension of what I have done in the past. Budgeting, organizing, taking inventory, choosing priorities, dealing with people - I did all that in retailing. Doing it in politics is more rewarding because you do it to forward ideas and issues."
She takes pride in some of her past accomplishments, especially helping to bring a lawsuit last year against the Virginia electoral board on the grounds that the design for voting machine ballots was misleading.
"We lost the suit, but at least it brought the problem to the public's attention," she said. "The efforts to change it aren't over yet."
She also has some regrets: "I promised when I got into this that I would try to bring issues to the people, maybe institute public workshops on issueoriented topics," she said. "But I've found that the day-to-day mechanics of this job, of getting people in office, takes all I've got."
"I'm no different that the housewife who's crazy about golf or bowling, or active in womens clubs or charity work. I've got an interest and I'm pursuing it, that's all. When my children are grown, I'll go back to work. For now,politics is fun."