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Tale of a key state – and a bizarre county

Nov 7, 2016

Suddenly, something nobody expected has happened.

Michigan seems to have become the key state in tomorrow’s presidential election.

Hillary Clinton is coming here today. So is Donald Trump. So is President Obama. Bill Clinton was here yesterday -- two of the last three presidents of the United States, plus the next one, regardless of who wins.

The reason is simple.

Trump has surged nationally, but he has to win either Michigan or Pennsylvania to have any chance of winning the election – and Pennsylvania isn’t looking so good for him, so that leaves Michigan.

It’s third down and six or seven yards.


Democrats have to prevent him from scoring. This is all nail-biting and spellbinding. But to me, there’s another fascinating and much more bizarre race going on under the radar, in Macomb County, which often produces some very, ah, different politicians.

Take the mayor of Warren, for example.

Three years ago, Jim Fouts, then 71, was caught on videotape having a romantic tryst in Chicago with his executive assistant, who was then 27. The mayor, who was previously known mainly for an obsession with Frank Sinatra, indignantly denied his giving her a massive raise had any connection to the trip.

The good people of Warren reacted by reelecting him with 85% of the vote last year, and Warren officials then gave him a 14% raise.

OK.

But how interesting do you think the race for Macomb County public works commissioner could be?

Before you fall asleep, consider this. The two candidates so far have spent more than $2.6 million on this race.

Candice Miller, a sitting Republican congresswoman, gave up an entirely safe seat to run against Anthony Marrocco, the longtime Democratic incumbent.

Macomb is a county where the political culture has usually been dominated by ethnic, blue-collar white voters. They sometimes vote Republican in statewide or national races, as when the famous Macomb Democrats flocked to Ronald Reagan.

Locally however, Democrats hold every countywide office.

But Mark Hackel, the county executive, is strongly backing Republican Miller. If you want a hint about the general tone of this race, consider this quote from Chad Selweski’s blog Politically Speaking:

“The Miller campaign demanded that Marrocco pay back the $66,000 in attorney fees that the county reportedly spent on defending the public works commissioner in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a girlfriend/stripper that Marrocco hired to work in his office.”

Meanwhile, the Miller campaign has been denying Marrocco’s claim that she doesn’t have a college degree because she “got knocked up in high school.”

I asked Selweski, Macomb’s most knowledgeable journalist, about the county’s peculiar culture. He suspects it arose “from a sense of entitlement. Family ties have played an extraordinary role in this county’s politics for decades.

“Politics become very personal when you have close-knit cliques, almost Mafia-like in their approach, that reward loyalty and punish freelancing of any kind,” he said.

By the way, the public works commissioner job is one that is in a position to really influence businesses, something crucial in this still-growing county of nearly a million people.

I don’t know who is going to win this race, though I’d guess Miller. But in any event, this is one department prosecutors might want to keep an eye on.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's 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.