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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Candice Miller Just…Gets it Done

July 7, 2017

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, MI – Last year, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller was one of the most powerful women in Congress.  She might have been elected to the U.S. Senate three years ago, had she wanted the job.  She was, however, fast accumulating power and influence in Washington. 

The Macomb County Republican was the chair of the House Administration Committee, the only woman chair of any committee in her house of congress.  She also chaired Homeland Security’s powerful Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee.  Politically, she held a totally safe seat.  Her future as a major player in Washington, steadily gaining in power and influence, seemed assured.

Then, last year, she gave it all up.

Not to run for a higher office – though polls show she’d be a clear frontrunner if she chose to make a bid for governor. Not to take a cabinet post in the Trump administration, nor to take a huge job with a giant salary in the private sector, though she had at least one tantalizing offer to do that too.  No, she went home to run for a county position that some might have thought would be a sleepy retirement job – but which ended up putting her in charge of what she calls “probably the biggest infrastructure emergency in the state of Michigan.”

That would be the enormous sewer collapse on Christmas Eve and giant sinkhole in Fraser, which may cost taxpayers close to $100 million.  Today, she spends some of her days wearing a hard hat and talks to construction supervisors and engineers instead of committee chairs and foreign diplomats.  It might be too much to say she’s having the time of her life.  But she is totally engaged and seems fulfilled.  “I’m a problem solver. Solving problems is what I do,” she told me.

“Congress, you are one vote (out of 435).  Here, I can see an impact every single day.  I’m finding I’m using everything I’ve ever learned in my national, state and local jobs on this one.”

She’s given a public tongue-lashing to a powerful Republican state senator who dragged his feet on getting the state to assume a share of the burden; been on the phone with federal agencies, visited the White House and used her immense knowledge of Michigan’s third largest county.

As I walked into her office last week, she was just getting off the phone with an engineer at the construction site.  “They found another area in danger of imminent collapse,” she said.  Now, it may be the end of the year before everything is fixed. Two years ago, nobody would have thought she’d ever want this job.  Then she stunned virtually everyone by announcing she would leave Congress after seven terms to run to be Macomb County Public Works Commissioner.

“Everyone said, “what is that? Why would you want to do that?” she told me, laughing.  “They told me, ‘you could stay in Congress forever.’  And I thought, oh my God – I might have to stay here FOREVER??  I’d already stayed longer than I thought I would.”

Though deeply conservative on most issues, Miller, whose family owned a marina, has been a consistent environmentalist, especially regarding the Great Lakes.  Her husband, retired Judge Donald Miller, is in his 70s and prefers staying closer to home.  “To tell you the truth, I had a very interesting private sector job that would have paid way, way more than this. But you know what? I’m 63.  I don’t need a new house.  I don’t wear jewelry…I thought I could be impactful here.  And frankly, the incumbent was someone I didn’t think belonged in public service at all.”  

Running for reelection to Congress would have been much easier.

Democrat Anthony Marrocco, who had been in office since 1992, fought bitterly, but County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, endorsed Republican Miller, and she won by nine points.  Defeat may be the least of her opponent’s problems; since the election, an audit has found that Marrocco improperly charged $8.3 million in legal fees, and the FBI and a federal grand jury are reportedly looking into his actions.

“We got less than no transition help,” Miller said.  “He issued an edict telling his appointees not to talk to us.”  That threatened to become an issue a week before she took office, when the sewer collapsed. But she got a team in place and jumped into the fray on New Year’s Day.  But as consuming as the sinkhole crisis has been, she’s had other challenges.  “We discovered we—the public works commission—owned parcels of land nobody even knew we had!” she said.  Nor did anyone even understand the complexity of the county’s sewage systems; she discovered two apartment buildings discharging raw sewage into storm drains, not where it was supposed to go.

“Nobody knew!” she said. Next on her list: Digitizing decades of records her department has always kept on paper.  There’s plenty else to do… but will she stay in this job?  More than a few Republicans feel she’d be their strongest candidate for governor next year.   “I’m focused on this job right now,” Miller told me – but she’s not ruling anything out.  Republicans with long memories know how many of the state’s 83 counties she won last time she was on a statewide ballot, for secretary of state in 1998.  The answer: Every single one.

It will be interesting to see whether more than sinkholes are in her future.   

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

July 6, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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