Street Fighter Stirs Up Contest for State CEO
Attorney General Mike Cox battles to be Michigan’s next governor
by Susan J. Demas
May 16, 2010
As World War I engulfed Europe, another battle was brewing in Britain. On Easter Monday, 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood stormed through several buildings in Dublin.
After more than a century of British rule, Irish nationals rebelled against fighting another war for the empire and clamored for their independence. And while the British army quashed the weeklong Easter Uprising, as Yeats wrote, a “terrible beauty [was] born.” The Brotherhood begat the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which won the ensuing bloody war of independence in 1922, although the British held onto Northern Ireland.
The Easter Uprising claimed 434 souls and authorities rounded up more than 3,500 suspects, including a young Anthony McGuane from County Clare. The IRB member would be arrested again later on in the conflict, serving a total of four years in prison.
Ninety-four years later, McGuane’s grandson is a veteran of a more civilized form of politics. But Mike Cox — Michigan’s first Republican attorney general in 48 years — would be the first to tell you some of that Irish Brotherhood brawling spirit courses through his veins.
That’s the reason why many believe he’ll be the state’s next governor.
“Mike is a street fighter,” says Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis, who has not endorsed in the race. “This guy has always come from behind. He’s tenacious, loyal and not afraid to stir things up. He is that tough prosecutor, ex-Marine kind of guy. For lack of a better term, he has the right stuff.”
Whereas his two older brothers shined in college and law school, Cox enlisted in the Marines fresh out of high school (“I was a screw-up,” he unabashedly admits). The 18-year-old marched down to the army recruiting station with dreams of being a Green Beret jumping out of airplanes, but the Marine recruiter picked him off first (“I guess I was an easy mark,” Cox laughs).
The corporal emerged from his almost three-year stint not just with “your basic Marine Corps eagle tattoo” on his bicep, but with a scar ripping from his left ear through the back of his skull. That’s the handiwork of a disgruntled sailor at a base party.
“It grew out of, you know, you’re 19 and you have a few words with someone and he went back and got a knife and came back and jumped me,” Cox says, almost nonchalantly. “That was the Jimmy Carter armed forces, before they thinned a lot of people out…He ended up doing some time in the brig.”
His political career, of course, carries scars of its own. Cox was asked to investigate former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s alleged 2002 party at the Manoogian Mansion and the subsequent death of a stripper, but the AG found no evidence of wrongdoing. Rumors of a cover-up have dogged Cox ever since, even though he has steadfastly stood by his findings. Then in 2005, Cox admitted to having an extramarital affair, something he calls his “biggest failing as a man.”
Known for being hot-blooded and playing hardball, Cox has made plenty of enemies during his career, like former Rep. John Stewart. The Republican switched parties after his wife, Beth, lost her job in the course of a bitter 2006 GOP primary to succeed her husband. Cox and others backed Northville Township Supervisor Mark Abbo, who ended up losing in the general election.
“He seeks out to destroy. This is the Mike Cox modus operandi,” Stewart declares. “In my humble opinion, he’s the master and king of being Machiavellian.”
Cox’s dagger-blue eyes don’t flash at the criticism; in fact, he’s typically exceedingly calm in interviews. The AG dismisses Stewart as harboring a grudge and compares his own temper to that of the famously even-keeled Barack Obama.
“I don’t know what a temper means,” Cox shrugs. “My professional career started off being a prosecutor and every single day when I went to work, it had real life consequences. You’re in front of a jury in a murder trial and testimony comes out that’s different from what you expected and what police officers expected, you have to roll with it and you have to adapt. In the courts where I practiced, our view of hard work and being just that strong advocate was a little different than the work setting here in Lansing. It was high-pressured, high pace. I guess it was just a matter of expectations and culture.”
Sen. Nancy Cassis (R-Novi) has known Cox for two decades and serves on his campaign finance committee. She says her old friend is often misunderstood.
“He’s Irish; I’m Irish. I’d say get to know him,” she says. “… Mike is more approachable than people think. He started out humbly in the bowels of Wayne County. He’s come a long way, as probably we all have.”
Now Cox, 48, is ready for the ultimate pressure-cooker job, CEO of the most depressed state in the nation. It’s something he’s jumped into full force. While Republicans were licking their wounds from their thumping in the 2008 election, Cox had already moved on to 2010. Four days after the party’s electoral smackdown, he became the first candidate to file papers establishing his gubernatorial campaign committee.
“It’s kind of like when I was in law school and I started practicing. The people who were my heroes in my profession, after a little while seeing them, I thought, ‘I can do what they do,’” Cox says. “And when I got here and talked to people, I thought with a little hard work and study I can do what other folks can do. And as the economy worsened, it sort of started to grow.”
With his reddish, heart-shaped face and trademark glower, Cox looks like he could play a turn-of-the-century Irish immigrant in a Daniel Day Lewis flick.
That’s probably because his father, John, left an Irish-Catholic ghetto in Glasgow for Toronto in 1949. The skilled carpenter then walked across the Blue Water Bridge and hitched a ride to Detroit, later serving in the Korean War. And Rita McGuane Cox emigrated from Ireland a year later and worked as a domestic.
The couple would have three boys: Sean, who would become a federal judge; Kevin, a medical malpractice lawyer; and their youngest, Michael Anthony, born on December 29, 1961. The family settled in the working-class suburb of Redford near Rouge Park.
“It was your typical 950-square-foot house with a bunch of kids — we only had three,” recalls Cox, who wears a modest Timex watch along with a sharp green-gray suit. “I was a typical Irish-Catholic immigrant’s kid.”
Cox graduated from Detroit Catholic Central in 1980 — the same year as fellow gubernatorial candidate House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township), though their paths rarely crossed. U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter (R-Livonia) was two years behind, but he and Cox didn’t bond until they both worked in party politics two decades later.
In the Marines, the future AG was stationed in North Carolina, San Diego, Puerto Rico, Japan, and Korea. He was nominated for the Naval Academy, but opted to go back to Michigan in 1983 to earn some money doing construction, but he kept getting laid off.
“If the money had been better, I might have hung on and done that for a couple years, but I said, ‘What the hell. I’ll just go to U of M,’” he recalls.
Armed with Marine Corps discipline, Cox completed his undergrad at the University of Michigan in three years and graduated from its law school in 1989. Cox won custody of his 3-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, forcing him to juggle fatherhood and constitutional law (“I got a lot of help with family — the old-fashioned way,” he says).
His first job was in Oakland County, where he was hired by then-Prosecutor Dick Thompson, best known for tangling with Dr. Jack Kevorkian over assisted suicide. Cox was interviewed a year later in Wayne County by another familiar face, Kym Worthy, now the county prosecutor. He spent 13 years as an assistant prosecutor in Michigan’s largest county and would go on to head up the homicide division.
Cox met his future wife, Laura Erpelding, in 1990. It was a setup by her MSU sorority sister and future judge Lisa Asadoorian, at the Juke Box in Royal Oak (“A pretty happening place for the time,” he grins). Although he hit it off with the blonde police officer, there was a catch.
“The funny thing was Laura was working undercover then, so she wouldn’t give me her last name for a couple weeks,” Cox recalls.
She eventually relented and they married in 1994. Settling in Livonia, the couple has three kids together, ages 10, 12 and 14. Cox’s eldest daughter, now 27, has given them two granddaughters, ages 2 and 6 months. The father of four has coached soccer and basketball, although he gave it up a couple years ago when his kids grew older (“I don’t want to commit malpractice,” he jokes).
Politics has become something of a family business, with Laura winning a seat on the Wayne County Commission in 2004. Her husband tries to squeeze in family time on the campaign trail, frequently bringing the kids along. But he doesn’t have the same angst about his hectic schedule that many Baby Boom dads do.
“I sort of grew up in an immigrant culture where the highest compliment you could give to someone is he or she is a worker,” he says. “When I was growing up, my old man worked all the time. It was just what was expected. Forty hours a week?… I just never saw that growing up.”
Cox starts off his day running three to five miles or lifting weights (“I’ll tell you this,” he smiles. “I can bench-press more than anyone else running for governor. I say that tongue in cheek, of course.”)
Like many Republicans in Wayne County, Mike Cox didn’t start out as one (“Being a Democrat kind of fit with my background,” he notes).
He caucused for Al Gore in 1988, was “agnostic” about John Engler’s upset in 1990 and voted for former Attorney General Frank Kelley a couple times (“Don’t tell Cliff Taylor that,” Cox smiles).
Actually, for a man known as the consummate political animal, Cox didn’t show much interest at first. That was the domain of his older brother, Sean, a force in the county GOP. But the younger Cox tagged along for some events, where he met McCotter again. The AG-to-be marks 1992 as the year he became a Republican, impressed by then-President Bush’s foreign policy and Engler’s success in Michigan.
McCotter, known as much for his lead guitarist skills as for his elaborate analogies, says Cox was a quick study, going on to serve as Wayne County chair.
“It’s like the Beatles with Lennon and McCartney,” the congressman says of himself and Sean. “And McCartney brings George Harrison around and it’s like, ‘Who’s that?’ [Mike] was really quiet. He was learning. He was smart about that. And then he comes out with ‘All Things Must Pass,’ you think, ‘That’s pretty good.’”
In 2001 Cox was a finalist for U.S. attorney position, but lost out. Soon the Wayne County assistant prosecutor was being recruited to go for attorney general, as Jennifer Granholm was making the leap to governor. Cox admits he had a “sort of obtuse idea” to run for office, but he courted controversy when he tried a white Detroit police officer, David Krupinski, for the 2000 shooting of Errol Shaw, who was deaf and African American.
“There were 11 or 12 prosecutors under me, and none wanted to try the case, so I did,” Cox recalls. “It was my one and only case on Court TV.”
Krupinski was acquitted and Shaw’s civil case, ironically, was taken up by Cox’s future nemesis, Geoffrey Fieger. But the case didn’t deter conservative activists from recruiting the prosecutor as their nominee for the state’s top law enforcement officer. Cox was the last man standing, with then-Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow dropping out and others shying away from the prospect of facing Granholm if she lost her gubernatorial bid in the primary. She didn’t, Cox was nominated and the rest is history.
Cox’s tenacity paid off in the tense 2002 campaign. With a razor-thin 5,200-vote margin, Cox defeated now-U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township), coming from behind in the polls in the final days.
“It was the same things he embraced as a volunteer — you work as long as you can, as hard as you can,” McCotter says.
Cox made cybercrime and child support collection two of his top priorities. Admitting he’s a demanding boss, the workaholic strived to consolidate operations and cut costs. Building on his successful statewide organization, he coasted to re-election four years later against Detroit attorney Amos Williams, piling up a hefty 380,000-vote lead. A fierce competitor, Cox seems almost disappointed at the blowout (“The second time I ran, I enjoyed it, but it didn’t have the same urgency, ’cause I had a pretty good lead.”)
“I don’t know if Scott Bowen or Amos Williams called me ‘the accidental AG’ in 2006,” Cox adds. “And the funny thing is, I took it as a compliment because I wasn’t one of these people running for office at age 28, after four years of practicing. I’m an experienced lawyer. I’ve done a lot and it’s one of those good twists of fate where someone can run an office and have a lot of practice and actually get into the AG’s office. And it’s just been great ever since, as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds.”
Cox would be termed out of office at the end of this year, but he probably would have been ready to take the next step, regardless. (“I love being attorney general,” he smiles, “but being governor is a lot more consequential.”)
The ex-Marine is a love ’em or hate ’em kind of guy.
He’s not afraid to be out front on controversial issues, from being one of the few elected Republicans to back the 2006 Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) that banned many affirmative action programs, to joining a Florida lawsuit this year against national health care reform over Granholm’s loud objections. Cox also has been vocal on efforts to stop Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes and has jousted on rate hikes with the state’s largest health insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. He’s become a favorite keynote speaker at tea party rallies across the state.
“For an elected official to go out on a limb shows a lot of character. He stands up for what he believes in…even if it’s not what the media wants or what’s politically correct at the time,” says Jennifer Gratz, who spearheaded the MCRI and now works for the American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento.
But Williams characterizes Cox as “too aggressive, a bully” and ultimately an opportunist.
“I don’t know that he believes half the stuff he espouses, but he toes the party line,” his ’06 opponent says.
Cox has been known to butt heads with Republicans, as well. Sen. Bruce Patterson (R-Canton) was fundraising for gubernatorial candidate Dick Posthumous in 2002, which meant competing for scarce dollars with the upstart AG nominee.
“When we met, it certainly wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, we got off to a very rocky start,” recalls Patterson, who has since worked with him on energy and health care issues and endorsed Cox for governor. “We were like two alpha dogs arriving in a pack and sizing each other up.”
Perhaps these types of clashes are why even after almost eight years in statewide office, Cox might be best known for scandals, something he and his supporters complain is grossly unfair.
He launched his first TV ad this month, taking aim at U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland) for voting for the Wall Street bailout and Bridge to Nowhere.
“Elections are about people’s positions,” Cox argues. “You can call it a negative ad. The reality is that nothing is said about Pete personally. I take issue with his votes. That’s fair game in a democracy.”
Hoekstra leads in the most recent Rasmussen and EPIC-MRA polls, with Cox running third behind Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder. That’s something the AG downplays (“The election is the last four weeks of the campaign,” he shrugs).
In firing back against the spot, Hoekstra spokesman John Truscott was quick to bring up Cox’s baggage with the alleged Manoogian Mansion bash.
“The reality is people throw a lot of crap at me. I expect that,” Cox snaps. “My ads talk about votes. They don’t talk about rumors.”
He pauses. “Look, the next governor is going to need a thick hide. I don’t want to sound hypersensitive.”
But the issue doesn’t appear to be going away. The Kilpatrick saga is back in the news with the former mayor battling to avoid jail time over restitution payments and attorney Norman Yatooma deposing Cox for a civil suit. U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen has sealed the testimony, but that hasn’t stopped speculation that Yatooma may have uncovered dirt on the attorney general.
Cox is quick to remind people that his office is responsible for charging Kilpatrick in the 2008 assault of two police officers (“It was our case that brought him down,” he says). But he acknowledges there’s been fallout from his 2003 investigation.
“The politician in me says maybe we should have just waited three months after that initial investigation was done,” he says. “It’s like we approached it like we didn’t want to be Ken Starr with Whitewater turning into Monica Lewinsky. So we were thorough and the State Police carried on and they didn’t find anything different. It’s one of those amorphous blobs where people want to believe something happened. You know, people forget I’m a prosecutor. Ethically, I can’t charge someone without criminal evidence.”
Having once famously described the party as an “urban legend,” Cox has since backed off a bit. “Most people think there was some sort of a party. I don’t dispute that. I don’t really know.”
The state’s top cop is not concerned his affair will become political fodder, however, as it didn’t make a dent in his ’06 re-election bid. Nonetheless, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer seems determined to inject it into the ’10 campaign.
Cox has alleged that Fieger tried to blackmail him about his infidelity to stop the AG’s office from investigating the flamboyant attorney’s $453,000 effort to oust state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman in 2004. Fieger was acquitted of the campaign finance violation in a federal court. No charges were ever filed on the alleged blackmail.
Cox calls the affair “wrong and embarrassing,” and acknowledges his opponents might try to use the issue with social conservatives.
“I don’t know what the issue would be — that I’m not perfect?” he says. “I don’t know how they would tie it to what’s going on in Michigan today…If you think about it, if my wife and I got divorced before Geoffrey Fieger came along, there would be no issue. I mean, it wasn’t an issue for John Engler, for Ronald Reagan. In an odd way, the fact that we’re still married gives it legs, in a way. If we got divorced, people would say, ‘Oh, that’s just life.’”
Adds Cox: “It’s like my wife says, ‘If that’s the best they have, then they’re really struggling.’”
Patterson, who has raised $34,000 for Cox’s gubernatorial effort, admits the affair gave him “great pause.”
“He and his wife had a rocky time and I had a lot of empathy for her,” the senator says, but adds that he’s heartened by the couple’s closeness today.
Patterson says he has no qualms about the attorney general’s character, however. When his father, William, a stalwart Democrat, fell ill in 2008, Cox made a point to call him every couple weeks.
“[My father] was ebullient to talk politics, even with a damnable Republican,” Patterson chuckles. “It really was the factor that gave me a glimpse into what I think is Mike Cox’s soul.”
While his enemies and the press obsess about the gubernatorial horserace and his past flaps, Cox is all about the issues.
That’s the case the attorney general makes, meticulously highlighting his 92-point plan for Michigan, $2-billion tax cut and ideas to revitalize Detroit. He wants to chop the Michigan Business Tax in half for a savings of $1.3 billion and kill the income tax hike of 2007 (which already starts to roll back in fiscal 2012) for another $700,000. Cox argues that will send a signal to the rest of the country that “we’re big and bold and we’re changing for real.”
Cox waves off experts who question how to ax another $2 billion from the state’s $8 billion General Fund, arguing that his reforms will generate savings (“The media wrote a story when I released my 92 points last year and hasn’t covered it since,” he pointedly notes). Cox says Michigan’s outmoded tax and regulatory system has choked off its biggest city.
“It pains me that when I drive into my office in Detroit that there’s no rush hour,” he shakes his head. “Detroit is part of the storefront that is the state of Michigan. Part of my plan is about how the state is kind of like a store in this regard. It’s like we’re in this mall that’s called the United States and there’s 50 stores you can shop in. And you walk in our store and it looks like a piece of crap. It’s dingy and the door is beat up. And we have this reputation of being high-tax and overly regulated and hostile. But inside the store, we have this great skilled workforce.”
The U of M-trained lawyer underscores his devotion to substance over style with detailed policy responses, as he carefully gazes at what a reporter is writing down. (“I’m probably running way too long,” he apologizes. “Not pithy enough.”) He lets his spokesman play bad cop, trying to usher him out the door, but stays for 15 more minutes to discuss Michigan’s decade-long recession.
“Here we’re in the midst of this dramatic change in our economy,” Cox sums up. “In my neighborhood, it’s slowed down, but so many people’s jobs I know are in freefall. It’s always hard — people don’t enjoy change; it’s human nature…People don’t embrace change until they’re uncomfortable or worried. And people in Michigan aren’t comfortable; they’re worried. So I think they’re ready to embrace the changes we’ve probably needed for a while. That can be scary, but it can be a great opportunity for the state to get back on track.”
The truth is, Cox knows it will take a blend of political cunning and policy depth to triumph in both the GOP primary and general election. But that shouldn’t be a problem for a devotee of both heavy metal and Irish folk music.
Above all else, the grandson of Anthony McGuane relishes a fight. He’s been doing it his whole life — in the Marines, as a prosecutor and as attorney general. He never did get to leap out of an airplane while serving overseas, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped thinking about it (“Maybe I’ll be like George Bush,” he muses. “Do it when I’m 80.”)
Or maybe he’ll jump if he’s sworn in as Michigan’s 48th governor — just to make sure his new job is exciting enough.
Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and contributor to Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.