When you think of “3M” in just about any American city other than Logansport, you think Scotch tape, red plaid labels and a Fortune 500 company you want in your portfolio.
When people close to Cass County government in the 1980s and 1990s thought of another 3M, they thought of a woman who wasn’t a lock-step, rank in file kind of public official. In fact, she wasn’t afraid to speak up or speak out, even if it meant someone had to swallow some pride pills without benefit of a water pitcher nearby.
That was Mary Margaret Muehlhausen.
She passed away recently and will be remembered as one of those one-of-a-kind people in public life who actually thought more about how government ought to work than the vast majority who often seem content to let it work its course. She did more than take minutes for the county commissioners and county council. She read state laws, and at a point when county boards of health and hospital boards were required to have no more than four members of one party, she blew the whistle on Cass County’s non-compliance with state law. Her work days didn’t end at 4 o’clock when the courthouse closed, though that was often the norm for many.
I didn’t know her in 1980s when she won her first term as county auditor, but I did know she was proof that you can outshine your party in a primary. She wasn’t the party choice for auditor, but she was the people’s choice, and the voters prevailed to nominate her in the primary and elect her in November.
When I returned to Logansport in 1982, my first election as a journalist was an interesting one. Her son, Jim, won what will probably go down as the closest county prosecutor race here ever. He narrowly defeated his neighbor, Democrat Jim Austen. That gave the courthouse two elected Muehlhausens. It’s rare that any family could have two of its members serving in government, but it was meant to be for 3M and Jim.
The late Don Freehafer, who covered politics from Roosevelt to Reagan, once told me there were few great names in local politics, but Muehlhausen was one of them. Part of it stemmed from the tenure of former Logansport Mayor George Muehlhausen who spearheaded many civic improvements including the city pool. Some credit it to Muehlhausen Spring, the company he led, which was one of the ribs in Logansport’s economy in the golden age of manufacturing in the community. But part of it, plain and simple, was that 3M was a well-liked straight-shooter. She supported her party and was proud to run as a Republican, but she wasn’t awed by public office or the first to bow down to someone else. A case in point was the candidacy of former State Auditor Ann DeVore. When DeVore anticipated the support of all incumbent Republican auditors in the state, she arrived in Cass County to find that 3M had left her office for the day. It wasn’t a coincidence. It was a message to DeVore that she shouldn’t assume support. She had to earn it.
3M not only beat the system to win in 1980. She beat it again in 1988. With three incumbent at-large Republicans running again for seats on the Cass County Council, she threw her hat in the ring. Days before the election, a party official walked into her office when she wasn’t there and said to her deputies, “Everybody knows how to vote council, don’t they?” The deputies nodded and acknowledged to the implied question about their loyalty to the incumbents. They knew how to vote alright. They joined a majority of Cass County voters in electing the first woman from either party to the county council.
Mary Margaret wasn’t content to just be one of seven members of the council. In her first two years, she was able to secure enough votes to award $1,000 raises each year to county employees. Cass County salaries were among the lowest in the state for counties with a population roughly at 40,000 at the time.
I can recall writing a story about women being elected to new posts in government, and including a comment from her. She gave some candid advice to female candidates and officeholders: “Get in there and scrap.”
Mary Margaret Muehlhausen did, and if she were alive today, her advice to female candidates from both parties would be the same.
Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.