Why on earth is Candice Miller running for county drain commissioner?

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.

Miller’s challenge

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.”

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Thu, 05/05/2016 - 10:03am
The article labels Miller at 61... She turns 62 in two days. This makes her eligible to collect Social Security, along with her 3 pensions!
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 10:34am
Elected County positions only require the management of administration under your, it is much less work than an elected position at almost any other level and the timing is such that it would be a nice retirement job for someone who has already leeched money from the public.
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 10:33am
Didn't we learn from Flint that if it's not broke, why fix it?
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 12:07pm
Chad Selweski, great article.
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 1:59pm
Ironically Candice is going for the her 6th household pension. She needs to disclose how many hundred thousand a year she is sucking down in public pension between her and her husband. Candice is also using her Washington DC special interest money to get elected. Outrageous. Candice's concern for the environment as evidenced by her congressional voting record is simply a convenient election year conversion.
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 8:00pm
If the pensions were all earned legally, what exactly is your beef?
Mujwahad Alibaswanna
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 5:51pm
This shall be an epic show down. I cannot wait. 2 powerhouses in MC politics.
Jim Lang
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 6:44pm
I second Susan: excellent article!
Bob Morris
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 7:13pm
Since the Republicans banned straight ticket voting, Candy Miller may become one of the first winners as voters have to pick a candidate in each and every office. This is a huge plus for the highly recognized Congresswoman.
Mortified in Macomb
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 9:09pm
After 20 years of involvement in Environmental and water issues I am now presented with the choice between the developers best friend and a politician who wants to fatten her income with a great salaried semi retirement job.. Some option.. I would be curious to see their tax returns.
Patricia Crowley
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 7:48am
Can you please provide evidence for the statement: "In many rural, inland counties the position still remains little more than a backwater post, a figurehead office." The drain commissioners I work with with are continously working on projects that significantly impact the economies and environments of their counties. They just don't hold ribbon cuttings and press conferences everytime a project is completed.
Sat, 05/07/2016 - 9:18am
Many smaller counties, like Alcona where I live, do not even have drain commissioners. In Alcona County which chose to "opt out", the road commission assumes the legal role.
David Waymire
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 10:57am
So state and local budget cuts have dramatically reduced testing of water at key locations. But we know major rivers and Lake St. Clair are badly polluted by human hand (so to speak). There real question here is who will stand up and say we need to increase taxes to pay for these critical human services in a county where the tea party has elected some of the most rabid anti-government officials in the Legislature. Absent a tax hike, these vital infrastructure issues cannot be addressed.
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 4:18pm
- Why did the Macomb County Water Quality Board stop functioning ? - A very LARGE amount of Combined-Sewer-Overflows enter Warren via Oakland Count's 12Towns Drain.
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 6:30pm
to the observant WilliH2O:, you should direct that question to our County Executive Mark Hackel. It was his call to end it.
Sat, 05/07/2016 - 7:57am
Great read. Thanks for your thorough journalism.
Sun, 05/08/2016 - 7:34pm
Regarding those multiple pensions, I find it interesting that my wife, a retired public school teacher (38 years, Troy Public Schools) is forever forbidden to work for a public school in Michigan again, because (god forbid) she might be able to work toward a second pension. The caretakers of our most valuable commodity, our children, get the least amount of encouragement and reward. The politicians, on the other hand, seem to get whatever they can get, no holds barred.
Fri, 05/27/2016 - 9:31pm
Why hasn't anyone mentioned the staggering amount (200, gallons of waste) spilling into our precious Great Lakes? This is unacceptable! NYC and other places clean the waste, yielding clean and safe water. Shouldn't this be the focal point, or what exactly am I missing?
Robyn Tonkin
Mon, 06/13/2016 - 9:28am
This is a fascinating article that deals with important issues. My family has lived in the Detroit area for a very long time, and I have always been interested in ecology and the environment, yet I never knew that the Frank and Poet (or maybe Frank A Poet) drain that exists in my home town is part of a vast system that involves a very long stretch of the eastern shore of Michigan. I never knew the sway of jurisdiction and power that drain commissioners have. Yet most of the people posting comments can only show interest in how many public pensions Candice Miller has. Why can't people turn off the Fox News Greek Chorus jazz long enough to concentrate on what is important about this article, and become informed as a voter and citizen about the water infrastructure issues in one critical county in our state? Doesn't anyone stop and think about the reality of what Candice Miller is willing to take on--profound water pollution and disgraceful infrastructure deterioration? People--she's not doing it for the pension. she obviously thinks she knows how to make a difference and she wants to try. And I am a Bernie Sanders supporter, so you know my political bent, but I hope she wins the election.