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The brutal, expensive political fight to run Macomb County's sewers

Nov 4, 2016

If you live in southeast Michigan, you’ve probably seen ads like this on your TV lately:

And this one:

They’re ads in one of the state’s nastiest, most expensive races for a pretty obscure public office.

That job: Macomb County Public Works commissioner. In many counties, better known as the drain commissioner.

“It’s certainly not a glamorous job. You’re basically in charge of storm drains and sewers,” says Chad Selweski, a political writer and longtime observer of Macomb County politics.

Admittedly, it might be a higher-profile job in suburban, lakefront Macomb than it is elsewhere. The county’s massive sewer system has a longtime problem: big rainstorms cause big sewage overflows into Lake St. Clair.

“That leads to bad water quality, that leads to beach closings. And you also have flooding issues in heavily populated subdivisions,” Selweski says.

But still: Why would a sitting member of the U.S. Congress ever step down to run for this job?

Miller vs. Marrocco: two Macomb political heavyweights

“Michigan is my home! I’m a Michigan girl, and I’m coming back to Michigan,” Candice Miller told a cheering crowd at a Macomb GOP dinner last month.

Miller has safely held onto her Macomb County Congressional seat since 2002. Before that, she was Michigan Secretary of State.

This race is somewhat exceptional - two seasoned and prolific fundraisers vying for a relatively obscure post.

Miller said she’s stepping down to run for public works commissioner because, “I feel so passionately about stopping all these sewage overflows that are fouling our water, the beach closures. I’m also running to try to stop this very dark atmosphere that has evolved in this department, and make this department a force for good.”

Miller didn’t name her opponent there — the one she accused of creating that “dark atmosphere.”But his name is Anthony Marrocco.

Marrocco is a Democrat. He’s been public works commissioner for 24 years. And he’s never had much of a challenge for the post until now.

And Marrocco has come back at Miller swinging hard. His main line of attack: Miller’s voting record on environmental issues in Congress.

This is how he described it during an appearance on the local Detroit Fox 2 program “Let It Rip:”

She voted against tightening the lead standards in drinking water,” Marrocco told host Charlie Langston. “She comes over here and doesn’t say that to people. She says she wants, you know, clean water. Yet her voting record in Congress doesn’t support that at all.”

It’s true that Miller’s record hasn’t won praise from environmental groups.

But political writer Chad Selweski says Marrocco’s claim that Miller will cause “another Flint water crisis” is a little problematic.

“The problem with that is, the public works commissioner has nothing to do with the drinking water system,” Selweski said. “It’s strictly sewers and storm drains.”

Race gets brutal — and expensive

This race got nasty quick. And one big weapon in Miller’s arsenal has been Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

Hackel is a Democrat. But he’s come out as one of Miller’s strongest surrogates, and Marrocco’s biggest headaches.

Hackel was complaining about a lack of transparency with the new, regional Great Lakes Water Authority on WJR’s Frank Beckmann show in June. Then, he suddenly veered onto the subject of Marrocco.

“At least there's some transparency [with GLWA]. That’s different than my current public works director in Macomb County, where that seems to be more of a pay to play," Hackel said.

"If you're going to be part of this process where you come to these [Marrocco] fundraisers, then you're going to benefit from these contracts. If you don't, your permits and contracts are going to sit on the back burner."

Marrocco has denied these allegations, calling them "disgusting." But it doesn’t help that he’s been a very prolific fundraiser over the years, with strong ties to the construction industry.

“There’s a lot of contractor-construction type money flowing into this race, especially for Marrocco,” says Selweski.

How much money are we talking about, exactly?

"This is definitely one of the most expensive county-level races in the state's history. It could be the most expensive."

“This is definitely one of the most expensive county-level races in the state’s history,” said Craig Mauger, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “It could be the most expensive.”

Mauger said Marrocco has raised about twice as much money as Miller — about $1.8 million (see Miller and Marrocco’s latest campaign finance filings here and here). That puts the total for the whole race at about $2.7 million as of October 28.

But Miller is no fundraising slouch. She could actually have an advantage in cash on hand heading into the home stretch.

Altogether, this race is somewhat exceptional — two seasoned and prolific fundraisers vying for a relatively obscure post. But Mauger says it’s also indicative of an election system that sees more money pouring in with every cycle, with almost no limits.

“These two things together have led to a race for a county office, that could cost upwards of $3 million,” said Mauger.

And there’s a late-breaking twist. Last month, federal prosecutors revealed an ongoing investigation into Macomb County municipal corruption.

It hasn’t touched Marrocco yet, but it has touched some in his circle. And it does involve pay-to-play allegations.

But when it came time to return campaign contributions from Rizzo Environmental Services — the waste-hauler accused of bribing some local officials — both Marrocco and Miller had to pony up funds.