By Chad Selweski
In a surprise move today, retiring U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Twp.) set the stage for possibly one of the fiercest political battles in recent Macomb County history when she announced that she will challenge county Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco –– the “godfather” of Macomb politics –– this fall.
Since she announced her pending retirement last year after seven terms in Congess, Miller has been the subject of considerable speculation that she would run for governor in 2018. But in recent months, she has quietly downplayed those GOP wishes. She recently hinted that, after a political career that began at age 22, she might want to engage in a private-sector job, perhaps working for a nonprofit. But she also tantalizingly held out the prospect of running for a county office, without offering a hint of which one. The recent death of veteran county Treasurer Ted Wahby added some spice to the stew.
A Harrison Township Republican who grew up on the waterfront of Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River, Miller suggested that Marrocco is the villain in the annual dumping of 1 billion gallons of partially treated sewage into Lake St. Clair by the facilities that he oversees.
The county’s aging infrastructure, she said, results in high levels of E.coli bacteria in the lake and Clinton River that lead to public safety hazards.
“Certainly with the water crisis in Flint, I think people are painfully aware of what poor underground infrastructure can mean,” Miller, 61, told the Detroit News. “I just felt that this is where I could have the most positive impact. I want to step up and help address it.”
An avid boater and frequent critic of environmental protection efforts at the local, state and federal level, Miller immediately snagged the endorsement of County Executive Mark Hackel. Like Marrocco, Hackel is a Democrat, albeit a conservative one, but he has publicly feuded with the public works commissioner.
Marrocco, 68, of Clinton Township, has remained reclusive in his many years as public works commissioner, but he is known as the godfather of Macomb County politics because of his hardball approach toward maintaining his 24-year reign at the public works office.
A wealthy developer before his entrance into politics in the 1980s as a county commissioner, Marrocco is famous in political circles for throwing elaborate fundraising parties for his quadrennial re-election campaigns.
Though he never faces a serious challenge at the ballot box, he maintains two political action committees that rake in large amounts of money, even by statewide standards. He has a reputation as a hard-nosed political powerbroker behind the scenes who is not shy about punishing his political enemies.
In 1992, Marrocco succeeded the legendary public works commissioner Tom Welsh, a towering figure in Macomb politics for three decades. His aggressive approach toward massive drainage projects in the 1960s opened the door to the development of subdivisions and businesses in southern Macomb County and along the lakefront.
It was widely assumed by Macomb County political observers that Marrocco would hold the office for as long as he chose.
But Miller’s challenge changes the game dramatically. As a widely popular Republican, who consistently runs above the GOP base for her 10th congressional district seat, Miller could dominate the GOP vote in November. In addition, she could easily play the role of a more environmentally conscious advocate than Marrocco.
Both candidates will likely spend huge sums of campaign cash but the dynamics of the race go beyond war chests. Marrocco enjoys an advantage as an entrenched incumbent with an ethnic name –– always a plus in Macomb. But Miller can piggyback on the name identification –– campaign signs and literature –– generated by the newly appointed county treasurer who will also seek election on the November ballot –– former state Rep. Derek Miller (who's of no relation, however, and a Democrat).
Marrocco has repeatedly shunned environmental activists and orthodox concerns about high E.coli bacteria levels in Lake St. Clair –– at one point blaming the pollution on seagulls, ducks and geese. What’s more, Miller has set the stage for longtime environmentalist rabble-rouser Doug Martz of Harrison Township –– a fierce political enemy of Marrocco –– to join her campaign team.
That adds intrigue to the coming campaign, as Martz is also a persistent critic of Hackel, claiming that both he and Marrocco have ignored the sewage overflows into Lake St. Clair that resulted in hundreds of beach closings in recent years.
The Macomb County public works commissioner –– the equivalent of a drain commissioner or water resources commissioner in other counties –– oversees hundreds of miles of drains, either underground pipes or rolling streams, and also operates massive sewer systems throughout the county. The sprawling Martin and Chapaton sewage retention basins, both located on the lakeshore, are controlled by Marrocco.
Joseph Hunt, a Warren Republican, has already filed his candidacy for the public works post. It remains to be seen, given the dramatic turnabout in the race, if he will hold firm and present a darkhorse challenge to Miller in the August GOP primary.
A waterfront resident on the Clinton River, Miller produced a YouTube video in conjunction with her announced candidacy in which she said she would work to address “inadequate” water and sewer infrastructure.
“We need to make certain that the water that we drink is pure,” the former Michigan secretary of state said. “We need to stop all of these sewer overflows that for decades have been fouling our waterways and closing our beaches.”
Chad Selweski is a freelance writer and blogger from Macomb County. Selweski worked as the political reporter for The Macomb Daily for 30 years. His website is politicscentral.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @cbsnewsman on Twitter.