It was December 2009 and Tom McMillin, one of the most conservative members of the Michigan House of Representatives, was feeling uneasy about fellow luncheon guests at a restaurant in downtown Lansing.
“I looked around the room and asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’” the Rochester Hills Republican recalled, scanning the crowd of Democratic legislators, liberal activists and others there to be briefed about fixing Michigan’s broken system for providing court-appointed lawyers to impoverished criminal defendants.
“Until that day, I don’t think I had ever been in a meeting with that many liberals or the ACLU,” McMillin said.
The luncheon marked a turning point in the political evolution of McMillin, whose vocal opposition to abortion and gay and lesbian rights has caused him to be reviled by many on the left.
Since then, McMillin, 48, not only led the charge to provide indigent criminal defendants with better lawyers, he has teamed with House and Senate Democrats, the ACLU and other unlikely allies on legislation to safeguard the legal and privacy rights of Michigan residents and make government more open and accountable to the public.
“If you had told me during my Christian Coalition years that I’d be working with the ACLU, I would have called you crazy,” McMillin said. “But when you’re working on something you feel strongly about, you can work with groups that you normally wouldn’t agree with.”
It’s a surprising turnabout for McMillin, a former Catholic altar boy who evolved into an evangelical Christian and Tea Party conservative with strong libertarian views. McMillin said his ACLU alliance shows what can be accomplished in a contentious political environment when traditional foes find common ground to resolve some issues, while agreeing to disagree on others.
“What I find refreshing about Tom is that, if you say you love the Constitution — as many in the Tea Party say they do — Tom expects you to respect, promote and uphold every part of the Constitution, not just the parts you agree with. He expects you to be all in.” — Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth
That sentiment is shared by ACLU lobbyist Shelli Weisberg.
“People tease me about my relationship with Tom McMillin, but working with him has made me look at every conservative legislator differently,” Weisberg said. “I’ve learned that I can work with them on some mutual issues and I think they’ve learned that they can work with the ACLU. It’s been a real growth experience.”
Finding his faith
His transformation to an evangelical Christian began as a high school sophomore in Bowling Green, Ky., where McMillin, a varsity golfer, began attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes gatherings in the school library.
After moving to Michigan, where he graduated from Rochester Adams High School in 1983, McMillin enrolled at the University of Michigan to study accounting.
The summer after receiving his degree, while waiting to start as auditor for the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, McMillin worked in the toy department of a Meijer store and volunteered for Joy of Jesus, a faith-based nonprofit that helps young Detroiters.
He spent the next three years struggling to become a CPA, saying he failed the state licensing test three times before he passed.
“I had a lot going on in my life and the exams were very difficult,” McMillin recalled, referring to his job and recent marriage to a friend of his sister’s he had met in Bible study.
The marriage didn’t last. To keep from becoming depressed about a divorce he didn’t want, McMillin, who had been considering getting into politics to end abortion and preserve what he said are traditional family values, decided to take the plunge.
It was like taking the CPA exam all over again.
After running unsuccessfully for Auburn Hills City Council in 1991 and the Oakland County Commission in 1992, he won a council seat in 1993. He served nine years, while also working as state field director for the Michigan Christian Coalition, recruiting other Christians to the political process.
“I like empowering people and showing them how easy it is to make a difference,” said McMillin, who is now a Baptist.
In 1998, McMillin tried unsuccessfully to unseat then-U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, whose district included northern Oakland County. Four years later, he beat an incumbent Democrat to win a spot on the Oakland County Commission. He won by targeting Auburn Hills parents who were unhappy about having to send their children to Pontiac public schools, which he said they deemed unsafe and subpar.
By then, McMillin’s conservative views on social issues were well known. He protested outside abortion clinics, helped defeat a Royal Oak gay rights ordinance and pushed a county commission resolution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
He also tangled with the county’s mainstream Republican office holders, including County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, accusing them of abandoning conservative values to attract more voters.
Patterson, also the county GOP chairman, pushed back.
Fed up with negative political ads and other tactics – including political mailers containing graphic drawings of late-term abortions – Patterson denounced McMillin and his cohorts as the “Taliban wing of the Republican Party.”
“The Democratic Party in Oakland might as well close their doors and save their money, because McMillin is single-handedly delivering the county for the Democrats," Patterson declared in 2003. At one point, Patterson tried to kiss McMillin at a public event to poke fun at his views about homosexuality.
Unrepentant, McMillin called Patterson “a lost soul in need of prayer.”
McMillin ran unsuccessfully against Oakland County Treasurer Patrick Dohany in 2004 and two years later lost a bid as the Michigan GOP’s nominee to the State Board of Education.
But he hit pay dirt in 2008, winning a vacant seat in the state House of Representatives, squeaking by a crowded primary field of Republicans and handily defeating a Democrat that November. He campaigned on a platform to create a part-time legislature, cut taxes and make government more transparent.
An ally in Lansing
After arriving in Lansing, McMillin met State Rep. Justin Amash, a newly-elected Grand Rapids-area Republican and Tea Party favorite with a strong libertarian streak. They quickly became friends and political allies.
Less than three months after taking office, both men posted their salaries and benefits, including those of their staff, on the Internet – the first legislators to do so. They also tackled other issues, including legislation to try to end state subsidies – which they characterized as corporate welfare – to select companies.
Eventually, Amash’s libertarian philosophy, including strong views on civil liberties and the U.S. Constitution, began to rub off on McMillin. It was Amash who invited McMillin to the December 2009 luncheon to discuss indigent criminal defense.
As a fiscal conservative, McMillin said he initially worried about how it would look to potential GOP rivals if he worked with liberals to get more funding so criminal defendants could be adequately represented in court. At the time, Michigan ranked near the bottom of the nation in indigent defense spending.
Amash told him not to fret, saying in effect, “They’re going to lie about you, anyway, so just do what’s right and don’t worry about it,” McMillin said. He said Amash also helped him realize that locking up people for crimes they didn’t commit because they had incompetent lawyers is one of the worst injustices government can inflict on its citizens.
McMillin signed on, leading the charge to create a state commission to fix the criminal defense program. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation into law last July.
McMillin’s mistrust of big government and concern for individual liberties have bolstered his unlikely bond with Democrats.
He has introduced bills to restrict law enforcement’s use of drones without legal justification and requiring police to report the details of SWAT raids and the seizure of property to prevent police abuses. McMillin has also joined progressives’ efforts to make it cheaper and easier for citizens to obtain public records under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Those measures are facing resistance from law enforcement and government officials.
McMillin chairs the House Oversight Committee, which enabled him to pursue many of those issues. But he has had difficulty getting many of his bills passed.
During five years in Lansing, he has introduced 183 bills and resolutions. Fourteen passed the House and five of those were signed into law by the governor, including the indigent defense bill – his biggest accomplishment so far.
McMillin said he isn’t concerned that he hasn’t gotten more bills passed: “I know that I can’t change everything, but I can do my part. I don’t have to have complete victories. My goal is to speak out and try as much as I can to influence issues and move the ball down the field.
“As a conservative, I don’t have a tax cut bill to call my own, but I’m very proud to have a bill that says that indigent criminal defendants can get a fair trial,” McMillin said, adding that it costs Michigan taxpayers $30,000 a year to keep innocent people in prison.
Because of his efforts, McMillin last year joined former Vice President Walter Mondale and liberal activist and actor Martin Sheen in a documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed poor criminal defendants the right to a lawyer.
State Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, said McMillin’s decision to embrace the issue surprised several Republican colleagues who weren’t aware of McMillin’s libertarian shift.
“What I find refreshing about Tom is that, if you say you love the Constitution – as many in the Tea Party say they do – Tom expects you to respect, promote and uphold every part of the Constitution, not just the parts you agree with. He expects you to be all in.”
Capitol observers said McMillin won’t vote on bills he doesn’t understand and records show he often votes against the Republican caucus, usually based on his libertarian views.
But he still remains reliably conservative on others, voting against paying benefits to same-sex partners of state workers, and to require women to purchase extra insurance to get abortion coverage in their health plans.
Despite their differences on social issues, the ACLU’s Weisberg and Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, one of the House’s most liberal members, said they have found it easy to work with McMillin.
“He has strong positions, but that’s one of the things I appreciate about him,” said Irwin, who is working with McMillin on civil asset forfeiture legislation. “He’s not afraid to say what he thinks. If more politicians were like that, I think we’d have a more vital and real political discourse in America.”
Weisberg and Irwin said they hope to bring McMillin around on abortion and gay rights, which isn’t likely given his religious views.
But others said McMillin can be difficult when he disagrees about an issue.
During a hearing last summer on controversial Common Core educational standards that McMillin opposes, House Education Committee Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Twp., had to abruptly cut him off when he kept peppering witnesses with questions that Kelly said had been asked and answered repeatedly.
“I banged the gavel to let him know this wasn’t a rodeo, that there was going to be some decorum,” Kelly recalled.
“When Tom does this in committees, he’s saying, ‘I’m just trying to do my job as a legislator,’” said Kelly. “I believe him. He’s inquisitive and tries to get to the heart of a matter. But sometimes, it’s uncomfortable for the person on the other end of the questioning – and sometimes even for the chair of the committee.”
Yet, Kelly praised McMillin as a passionate, well-meaning legislator who does his homework, tries hard to serve his constituents and forces colleagues to think.
McMillin can’t seek reelection this year because of term limits. So he’s running for a vacant State Senate seat against fellow Republican Chuck Moss, a former Oakland County Commissioner and former state representative. Moss declined to be interviewed.
McMillin said his second wife, Dalila, supports his plan, even though she isn’t crazy about politics. They met through an online Christian dating site, married in 2005 and have two children. McMillin also has an adult daughter from his first marriage.
“My wife said the last person she would ever marry would be a politician,” McMillin laughed. “She’s very apolitical and continually asks me how I manage to put up with political attacks.
“As long as I’m standing on principle,” he said, “the attacks don’t bother me.”