Even several weeks after U.S. Rep. Candice Miller announced her latest campaign, political observers across Michigan are still asking: Why would a popular congresswoman and former Secretary of State give up a sure House seat, retire from the center of national politics, to run for an obscure Macomb County office – public works commissioner?
Surely she could have landed a big-bucks lobbying job in the nation’s capital. Did the Harrison Township Republican not hear all those behind-the-scenes pleas from GOP insiders telling her she would have an inside track to succeed Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018?
The upcoming campaign, between Miller and longtime Democratic incumbent Anthony Marrocco, a powerful force in Macomb County politics, shapes up as one of the oddest, most intriguing 2016 races in Michigan.
But perhaps, not as surprising as it may seem on the surface.
The lead water crisis in Flint, which drew President Obama to the city on Wednesday, has put environmental and infrastructure issues faced by public works officials front and center in several races across Michigan. These positions have gone by different labels – public works, water resources, drain commissioner – depending on the county, but what they've had in common, aside from their behind-the-scenes political power, is relative obscurity, at least until Flint.
In Oakland County this year, first-term incumbent Democrat Jim Nash faces an aggressive election challenge from an experienced chemical engineer, Robert Buxbaum, a Republican. Prior to Nash’s surprising win in 2012 over GOP incumbent John McCulloch, only two people – George Kuhn and McCulloch – had held the Oakland drain commissioner’s seat since 1970.
In Kent County, the open seat for drain commissioner will be decided in a potentially intense contest between a term-limited state representative, Republican Ken Yonker, and Democrat Rachel Hood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
And in Genesee, while the Flint crisis did not produce an election challenger to Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, he’s been thrust into the spotlight as questions arise about his role in the debacle. A state task force has called for an investigation of the finances surrounding the Karegnondi Water Authority, which is building an 80-mile pipeline to deliver Lake Huron water to Flint. Wright is the driving force behind that $285 million project.
“The Flint water crisis has heightened awareness of the role our elected officials play in providing clean water,” said Jack Schmitt, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “And the infrastructure problems represent a long-term story of government disinvestment.”
Water politics in Macomb
In Macomb, Miller, 61, noted that the Flint crisis has made clean water and adequate infrastructure a nationwide concern. Macomb has not suffered from lead pipes that taint drinking water, but it remains a trouble spot for outdated infrastructure that has resulted in some high-profile sewage overflows into Lake St. Clair.
“Because of Flint, I think people are very receptive as to the impact underground infrastructure has on us,” Miller told Bridge. “You have pipes that are out of date, crumbling, but nobody is doing anything about it.”
The race presents a rather strange partisan divide between a pro-business Democrat and a Republican who bills herself as pro-environment. Marrocco, a six-term incumbent, has long wielded behind-the-scene influence as Macomb’s drain commissioner. On the other side is Miller, a politician with plenty of public good will, but little experience in water infrastructure and her own differences with a national environmental group.
If Miller has her way, water quality in Macomb County will be the dominant issue from now till November.
Partially treated sewage – hundreds of millions of gallons each year dumped by the system that Marrocco’s office oversees – enters the lake near drinking-water intake pipes. In recent years, sewage discharges laden with E.coli bacteria also share responsibility for hundreds of days of beach closings on the lake, considered one of the prime freshwater boating and fishing spots in the nation.
The public works commissioner oversees sewer systems, drain construction and maintenance, soil erosion and pollution controls, and anti-flooding measures. Whoever holds this office has the power to halt, or approve, residential subdivision planning and layout.
All of that infrastructure fuels economic development and major construction projects. Currently, Macomb County, annually one of the fastest-growing counties in Michigan, features dozens of residential subdivisions in various degrees of completion, leaving Marrocco’s office awash in influence.
A local force
Even after 24 years in office, Marrocco remains relatively little-known through much of the county. Before entering politics, he was part of his father’s home building business and property development company for more than two decades. As a result, he knows many of the builders who seek permits from his office.
In turn, he has become a fundraising juggernaut. Marrocco, 67, maintains two political action committees. According to state campaign finance records, the Marrocco PACs combined raised over $380,000 in the last election cycle of 2013-14 (when he was not up for election). According to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, that was more than the amount secured by PACs run by business giants such as Quicken Loans, CMS Energy or Comcast Corp.
The public works commissioner serves a 4-year term but the fundraising never stops. When Marrocco sells tickets to a fundraiser, builders and developers are expected to buy at least one spot, preferably a full table, according to Joe Munem, a former longtime political consultant in Macomb County.
Munem said Marrocco is known for elaborate fundraising parties, attended by hundreds.
“Public works commissioner lends itself to raising lots of money, more so than any other position in Macomb County government,” he said. “It’s not a very sexy job. But Tony has always done this thing big.”
As a behind-the-scenes power broker, Marrocco sometimes recruits and bankrolls candidates through his political PAC to knock off perceived enemies on the county Board of Commissioners. The commissioners set Marrocco’s budget and pay. In 2012 he targeted commissioners (and fellow Democrats) for defeat after they refused to grant Marrocco, who makes $111,000 a year, a five-figure raise. The proposed pay hike was labeled “supplemental pay” for increased duties.
Richard Sabaugh, a former deputy public works commissioner under Marrocco who will manage Marrocco’s re-election campaign, said he doubts the incumbent will suffer from a tough-guy reputation in his race with Miller because “he doesn’t seek publicity, he doesn’t like the limelight,” and most voters know little about him.
While Miller has no experience in construction, engineering or drainage systems, the incumbent cites his steadfast business acumen, arguing that he has saved the public works office millions of dollars over the years. In a high-profile move in 2011, Marrocco sued the city of Detroit, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and contractors seeking millions after a Detroit sewer line break caused a massive sinkhole on 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights. A portion of that case is still pending.
Marrocco is currently overseeing repair and upgrade of the sprawling Oakland-Macomb “interceptor drain,” that is to provide reliable sewer service to 800,000 people in the two adjoining counties. Local officials have said they’re pleased because it will prevent leaks or collapses in the massive underground pipeline.
Growing influence, and controversy
The office of drain commissioner emerged during Michigan’s 19th-Century establishment as a state, but in many rural, inland counties the position still remains little more than a backwater post, a figurehead office. Yet, in much of eastern Michigan, stretching from Monroe to Bay City, the swampy conditions that held back economic development for decades were not corrected until the completion of drainage projects.
In the process, drain commissioners secured the power of the purse as they can levy fees and taxes on residents and businesses within a particular drainage district without voter approval. In Macomb, the county’s 952 drains – ranging from underground pipes to man-made streams – would collectively stretch from Mount Clemens to southern Georgia.
Though he avoided a serious election challenge for 20 years, Marrocco is taking nothing for granted in 2016, declaring that he is the true environmental champion in the race, a claim that Miller rejects as “stunningly obtuse.”
“I’ve got a great record,” he said. “Lake St. Clair is the cleanest it’s been since I took office. The Clinton River is cleaner now than when I was first elected.”
Marrocco argues that a more efficient sewer system has kept more pollution out of the river and lake, a trend that will only increase.
But data from the Macomb County Health Department, which tracks sewage overflows, beach closings and pollution levels in the waterways, offers a more nuanced portrait.
Annual overflows at the sewer facilities fluctuate with summertime precipitation, but during Marrocco’s 24-year tenure they have remained mostly at or above 200 million gallons of human waste discharged each year, including a recent summer, in 2011, in which 1.7 billion gallons were dumped into the lake.
At key junctures where tributaries converge with the Clinton River, water quality testing shows E.coli levels routinely exceed standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for bodily contact. In the 1990s, twice-weekly lab testing showed contamination levels in warm-weather months spiked repeatedly to extreme levels.
Now that cost cutting at the health department’s limits testing to random, monthly analysis from May to September, recorded levels are less alarming. But the 2015 testing program still shows that 87 percent of sampling sites on rivers, drains and streams – 55 locations, mostly in highly populated areas – failed water quality standards at least once. Some reached 10 to 20 times the EPA limit.
As for beach closings, records show the lakefront had 57 days of swimming bans in 1995, 59 days in 2005, and 89 days in 2015. Environmentalists point out that beach closings reached extraordinary heights in 2008-11, about 1,000 days combined, until Health Department officials gave up on the Blossom Heath park beach in southern St. Clair Shores and closed it permanently. For three consecutive years, that beach had been off-limits virtually all summer.
When Miller made her surprise announcement in March to take on Marrocco, she immediately snagged a big endorsement from County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, like Marrocco, who is nevertheless frequently at odds with the incumbent.
While Miller and her supporters portray her as a true environmentalist, that view is not unanimous. The national League of Conservation Voters – separate from the Michigan branch of the LCV – recently gave the congresswoman a zero on its environmental scorecard, citing Miller’s votes in Congress on air pollution, fracking and other oil and gas industry issues.
Based on 35 House votes in 2014-15, the conservation group said Miller supported a measure that would “entrench” fossil fuels at the expense of clean energy; was against a requirement that oil industry fracking operations publicly list wastewater and chemical byproducts used at their drilling sites, and opposed a provision that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to impose new air pollution standards for smog.
Miller dismisses the LCV rating, calling the league an “extremist, left-wing group” of environmental activists in Washington who ignore her advocacy for the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, Marrocco touts a 2012 endorsement by the Michigan Sierra Club at a time when he faced token opposition in the Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the general election. The Sierra Club’s southeast Michigan membership cited his knowledge of water quality issues, his educational program on environmental issues in elementary schools, and the energy efficiency aspects of his new office building.
In April, four top Democratic county officials – the clerk, treasurer, prosecutor and sheriff – endorsed Marrocco in the 2016 race. Assuming the two candidates defeat underdog competitors in the August primaries, Miller and Marrocco will face off in November.
A long record
While Miller has a decades-long record of victories at different levels of government, the race will likely focus on Marrocco’s stewardship of Macomb’s waters and infrastructure.
First elected in 1992, Marrocco has frequently battled with environmental groups such as Clean Water Action and with the now-defunct Macomb County Water Quality Board.
He has long downplayed the link between county’s sewer and drain systems and pollution in the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair. For two decades, he insisted that bird droppings – from seagulls, ducks and geese near the shoreline – played a larger role than sewage discharges in the persistent beach closings.
He now says the rainwater runoff that flushes animal feces into the waterways is a contributing factor, but not the overwhelming cause, of high E.coli bacteria levels.
As for the overflows from sewer systems that are overwhelmed by rains, Marrocco notes the discharges are chemically treated by his agency and monitored by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The alternative to discharging sewage into the lake, he said, is worse.
“I don’t think there’s a homeowner around who wants untreated sewage backing up into his basement,” Marrocco said.
Critics counter that lake discharges are not an acceptable alternative to basement flooding, and that his office should be focused on improving outdated infrastructure in the heavily populated, metropolitan county. Some areas of Macomb still have sewer pipes that can’t handle sewage and rainwater simultaneously during storms.
Hackel has said Marrocco has shown no interest in infrastructure upgrades that would reduce sewage discharges into Lake St. Clair.
“In my five years in office, I have not had one conversation with him about water quality issues … It’s not acceptable anymore,” the executive said in a recent interview on WJR-AM radio in Detroit.
Among Marrocco’s duties is a seat on southeast Michigan’s Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority board, which runs large regional park facilities, such as the Lake St. Clair Metropark in Macomb County (formerly known as Metro Beach). Sewer overflows are blamed for beach closings at the lakefront park – including 43 days of no-swimming alerts last summer. Marrocco said last month he now has plans "on the drawing board" to expand two huge facilities on the lakeshore, the Martin and Chapaton sewage retention basins.
One controversial issue that led Miller and Marrocco to cross paths involves a high-tech drinking water monitoring system on the lake that later fell into disuse due to lack of funding.
Miller helped provide early federal funding for the system, which placed pollution detection equipment at 14 drinking-water intakes from Port Huron to Monroe. Marrocco’s office played a key role years later in rejecting a plan to charge area homeowners 25 cents a year to keep the network running.
Munem and other political observers anticipate an expensive and nasty race. Miller has $830,000 remaining in her congressional campaign account, though she might face restrictions on how she can spend it in a county race. In addition to his PAC money, Marrocco had amassed more than $200,000 in his candidate committee war chest as of last December.
While Marrocco has experience and incumbency on his side, the congresswoman said she believes she can muddy his track record.
“The room for improvement in that office,” she said, “is enormous.”