“I like to think of myself as a problem solver,” Macomb County Public Works commissioner Candice Miller told me.
She’s needed to be. The week before she took office came the collapse of the sewer line in Fraser, the now-infamous giant sinkhole, what she calls “probably the biggest infrastructure emergency in the state of Michigan, at least at this time, perhaps ever.”
Dealing with that has been the main focus of her first six months in office. That’s not how she expected to start her new job, but she told me “I thought, well, solving problems is what I do,” so she rolled up her sleeves and jumped in on New Year’s Day.
And she hasn’t stopped since. I wouldn’t say she’s having the time of her life, but she’s fully engaged and fully committed. “Congress is obviously a very important job, but you are one vote, there (out of 435) right? Here I can see an impact, every single day.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. As I walked into her office in a Macomb county government complex, she’d just gotten off the phone with an engineer at the sinkhole site; a new problem had cropped up, and she is totally hands-on.
My impression, after watching her career for decades, is that she is the right person in the right job at the right time. Politically, the amazing thing is that she went after this job at all. Two years ago, Miller was not only a congresswoman with a safe seat, she was the only female committee chair in the U.S. House of Representatives. But she gave that up. Not to run for the U.S. Senate or take a cabinet post, but for Macomb County public works commissioner.
“People said, you are running for that? Why?” she said with a laugh, when I visited her office in Clinton Township Monday. Nor was getting the new job a piece of cake.
The former public works commissioner, Anthony Marrocco, fought a bitter campaign to try and keep his job. Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, strongly endorsed Republican Miller. After she won by almost ten points, her predecessor neither congratulated her nor did anything to help the transition.
She didn’t let that, or anything anyone said, bother her. She never has, not since when, ticked off by local politicians, she ran for Harrison Township trustee, and won. She was 40 when she became Michigan’s first Republican Secretary of State in 40 years. When she ran for reelection, she carried every county in the state. After that, it was 14 years in Congress.
“I never intended to stay that long,” she told me.
She wanted to come home. Though she has always been a staunch conservative, she’s also always cared about the environment and especially the Great Lakes. “I find I’m using everything I’ve learned in my national, state and local jobs in this one,” she told me.
That includes working across party lines. There are those who say she’d be the strongest candidate the Republicans could run for governor next year.
But right now, she tells me she is at the point in life where what matters is serving “where you can be impactful.” There are many issues on which Candice Miller and I disagree. But I wish we had more public servants like her.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.