News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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October 28, 2012

Mansard can count the days

Clerk’s tenure approaches end

TERRE HAUTE —

On Nov. 6, Vigo County Clerk Pat Mansard will be in her office by 5 a.m., ready for a long day and night at “election central.”

She’ll field calls from polling sites involving a range of issues, everything from faulty equipment to election workers who don’t show up. Throughout the day, reporters will ask her about election turnout and results.

On Nov. 6, the general election, Vigo County voters will cast ballots for U.S. president, congressmen, governor, state representative, county elected officials and school board members.

“This is the biggest election we have in the four-year cycle,” she said recently during an interview in the clerk’s office. “As usual, I want everything to be as perfect as we can possibly make it.”  

Nov. 6 also will be her last election as county clerk. For the past 24 years, the Mansard family — Pat for four, nonconsecutive terms and her late husband, Bill, for two terms — has had a monopoly on the office of county clerk.

For her first two terms, which began in 1989, Bill served as chief deputy. Then, Bill ran for clerk and was elected to two terms, and Pat served as his chief deputy.

Sadly, Bill died in 2003 with a year left in his second term, and a Democratic Party caucus chose Pat to serve the remainder of her late husband’s term. She then sought and won election to another two terms.

Few could argue that the Mansards leave a legacy of integrity, fairness and professionalism in administering Vigo County elections over the past 24 years.

The 2012 general election will be a sentimental one for Mansard, who is 74. She’d run for the clerk’s office again if she could, but term limits prevent it.

“It’s been such a part of my life. It’s hard to walk away from it,” she said. “I’ve invested so much of my life into trying to make a difference here — where I can, with what I have, in the time that I have.”

While she won’t be administering the elections after this year, “I’ll always care,” she said.

Mansard said she’s been committed to having “fair and honest elections. … You can’t control many things that go on politically, certainly, but you can make the administration of an election fair.”

And certainly, she, perhaps better than anyone, understands Vigo County politics — the good, the bad and the ugly.

In 1988, when she decided to run for Vigo County Clerk, she faced an uphill battle.

“I had none of the advantages. I was not from a political family. I was not the pet of any political boss. My name didn’t come first on the ballot,” she said.

And she quickly learned that the party “bosses” had someone else in mind. Her opponents in the 1988 Democratic primary were the late Gladys Bersett, Bill Roach and the late George Schoffstall.

She believes she was the victim of negative campaigning, and her husband — who had been assistant Terre Haute police chief — also faced consequences.

Despite the odds, “We decided not to let them bully me out of a race,” she said. “I decided to give people a choice, and I thought I had something to offer.”

Known for her trademark beret, which she wears in cooler weather, Mansard and her husband campaigned tirelessly, and it paid off. “I won — and I won big,” she said. She took about half the vote, while her opponents “took the other half,” she said.

After she won the general election, she asked her husband to serve as chief deputy clerk. The salaries for both the clerk and chief deputy were low.  

“I realized there was no way I could hire anyone of the caliber, education and experience necessary who would work tirelessly with no extra pay and be totally trustworthy,” she said.

She convinced her husband to take the job. He had majored in criminology and minored in public administration at ISU, and he also had years of supervisory and administrative experience through the police department.

“We worked as a team,” she said.

Under a new state law targeting nepotism and conflict of interest, it no longer would be possible for the Mansards to work as a team, with one serving as clerk and the other chief deputy.

Mansard said she agrees with the new legislation because she knows there have been abuses. But she also argues that taxpayers “got a great bargain” when she and her husband worked side by side in the clerk’s office.

The political parade

While she has many election memories, the most exciting occurred in 2008, when both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton visited Vigo County as they battled for the Democratic Party nomination to become the next U.S. president.

Both candidates visited Vigo County twice that year. “That was incredible,” Mansard said. Also incredible, she said, were the many people, including college students, who got involved in the election that year.

When Obama visited the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds in September 2008, both Mansard and her granddaughter, Amanda, had an opportunity to talk to the future president. Amanda wore a bright, pink cast, which caught Obama’s eye, and he signed it. “It was very exciting,” Mansard recalled.

She also remembers the “most physically exhausting election” in the early 1990s, after the Libertarian Party filed suit to allow write-in voting.

For that election, people were allowed to write in candidates on Election Day, and those write-in votes had to be hand tallied.

“On election night, we were here until 5 a.m.” the next day, she recalled. “It was a tremendous amount of work and expense for naught.” The first write-in they tallied was actually an obscenity. Others voted for Donald Duck.

Mansard and others in her office had just enough time to go home, clean up, change clothes and then return. The clerk’s office had to be open for business at 8 a.m.

Now, only certified write-ins are included and those candidates have certain deadlines to meet.

Mansard also remembers the 1996 recount in the District 46 race between Democrat Vern Tincher and Republican David Lohr. Tincher, first elected to the Indiana House in 1982, lost the 1994 election to Lohr, former Vigo County Republican chairman. Tincher took the seat back in 1996 in a close race that featured the recount.

In 2006, Michael Tom contested results when he was defeated by Alpa Patel in the Vigo County School Board District 5 race; Patel emerged the victor.

Changes over time

Mansard has seen significant changes over the course of 24 years, including the change from a punch card voting system to an optical scan system. “I wanted a system with a paper trail, and I think it has proven to be accurate and reliable,” she said. Also, those with disabilities are able to use a touch screen voting machine.

The clerk’s office is now computerized, and some records are stored electronically, although there is still much paperwork. In the future, officials would like to have all court cases stored electronically.

Other changes, Mansard said, include an additional Superior Court and record-keeping for the Indiana Child Support Enforcement System.

The clerk is an elected, constitutional official who performs as an officer of the court, the manager of court information and the chief financial officer for all revenues collected on behalf of the court.

In Indiana, the clerk is also the official who oversees and conducts all elections, as a member of the Election Board.

“This is not an office of great political power,” Mansard said. “It is an office of great trust. We have to keep records on every case that goes to the courts, we are trusted to handle money that goes through the courts and we are entrusted with the integrity of the elections.”

She said she’s worked hard through the years to bring professionalism to the office and hire staff “who are competent, courteous and caring.”

Janice Secrest, chief deputy clerk, has worked closely with Mansard for many years. “She cares about the people and that they get what they need,” Secrest said. “She really cares about elections, that every voter has their vote counted. She’s a lady of integrity.”

As Mansard looks to the future, when her term ends, “I face an opportunity to re-invent myself,” she said, acknowledging she has been “so defined by my job.” She plans to get involved with ISU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

She’ll also remain active with the League of Women Voters of Vigo County, and she plans to continue as a precinct committeewoman in the 12 Points area.

Mansard, who has four grown children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, also plans to spend more time with family.

Known for her commitment to public service, Mansard said one of the main reasons she got involved in politics was “to try to bring about better government.”

She believes it’s vitally important for people to vote, educate themselves on the issues and understand how government impacts their lives.

That’s why she’s passionately opposed to what she calls “voter suppression laws,” including Indiana’s voter ID law.

She believes the laws adversely impact the poor, elderly and disabled, creating unnecessary hoops that make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for them to vote.

Those supporting the laws “dress it up” and maintain it’s to protect the integrity of the election process, Mansard said, but they can’t demonstrate any fraud that’s taken place.

“It’s totally unnecessary and doesn’t do what it purports to do,” Mansard said.

Those laws do exactly the opposite of what should be happening, that is, encouraging people to get involved in elections and vote, she said.

As she prepares for her last election as Vigo County Clerk, Mansard’s advice to whoever follows her is to “try to really serve the people as we have. I will support them any way possible,” she said. “I’m trying to leave everything in as good a shape as I can to make it easy.”

She will be missed [in the clerk’s office], said Robbie Piper, secretary with the League of Women Voters of Vigo County. Mansard was one of the first recipients of the League’s Making Democracy Work award.

“She and Bill ran the elections so that we didn’t have to worry,” Piper said. “She is a tireless worker and has elections so well organized. We have been so fortunate.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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