July 22, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Cox shaped by military, law jobs

Gubernatorial candidate Mike Cox
Gubernatorial candidate Mike Cox: An interview with the Republican candidate for governor

Attorney General Mike Cox is a tough guy, the TV ads for his gubernatorial campaign proclaim -- tough enough to make the hard calls that must be made to right the ship of this state.

It's his theme, his mantra, the picture he wants indelibly stamped on voters' minds when they go to the polls in the Aug. 3 primary to choose between Cox and his four Republican foes.

Beyond the carefully cultivated candidate image, Cox, the man, is tough in many ways.

He's likely the only candidate for governor in Michigan history to sport a tattoo and a deep facial scar left by a knife fight during his service in the Marine Corps.

As attorney general, the 48-year-old Livonia politico has been tough on deadbeat dads, Medicaid fraud, national health care reform, Asian carp and utilities.

He's been tough on his opponents in attack ads and debates.

On the campaign trail, he insists on driving. In parades, he almost sprints a zigzag course along the route, leaving gasping staffers in his dust.

He has called for axing $4 billion from the state budget, which will be extremely tough to do. As part of his hard approach to government, he also wants to cut taxes by $2 billion, crack down on illegal immigrants, put more cops on the street and move some people from Medicaid into health savings accounts.

Cox's backers liken his tough-mindedness to that of former Gov. John Engler, the GOP's model chief executive. But there are a few complications.

Cox has been accused by opponents and in ads (aired by a group whose backers have not been named) of not being tough enough on former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Cox led the 2003 probe of an alleged party at the Manoogian Mansion, concluding it was "an urban legend."

His harsh, conservative blueprint for fixing the state and his appeal to tea party activists belies the fact that he once considered himself a Democrat.

While Cox likes to harken back to the discipline instilled in him while in the Marines, he acknowledged personal weakness in 2005 when he publicly admitted to having an extramarital affair.

Even the U.S. Marine Corps symbol tattooed on his right biceps has a softening side story.

"My wife likes to joke that the C (in USMC) looks like an O because my arm has gotten smaller," Cox says with a chuckle.

The focused candidate he projects today contrasts with the youngster who drifted through his teen years as a middling athlete and student. The son of Irish immigrants, he grew up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood with a boisterous family, often finding it difficult to get a word in edgewise during arguments about politics and other issues at the dinner table. He said he did B-minus work in high school. "I did just enough to not get too much flak from my parents," he said.

His brother, Sean, who is a U.S. district judge for eastern Michigan, recalls his younger brother as "a low-key, quiet kid who cruised through high school." He said the family was surprised when Mike scored high on a National Merit Scholarship exam because they didn't realize he was academically adept.

But his brother was a different man when he returned in 1983 from his three-year hitch in the Marines, Sean Cox said.

"He came home focused, driven. He got through the University of Michigan in three years. He would do a five-mile run before exams. The change was remarkable," Sean Cox said.

Mike Cox gives the Marines credit for turning his life around.

"Like a lot of teenagers, I was a little lost. I'm not really an extrovert ... I didn't have a lot of confidence," he said. "The Marines was a resurrection of sorts. They taught me I could do anything."

He was stationed in Puerto Rico, South Korea, Japan and state-side and was honorably discharged as a corporal in 1983. He got his facial scar in Puerto Rico, when he was cut by another serviceman during an altercation at a house party.

Early Democratic leanings

After graduating from U-M Law School, Cox worked as an assistant prosecutor in Oakland and Wayne counties. He took over the Wayne County prosecutor's homicide division in 2001.

Cox's parents were Democrats "who voted for Frank Kelley (for attorney general) until the very end," Cox said. He backed Al Gore in the 1988 presidential campaign and remembers voting for U.S. Sen. Carl Levin. But his work as a prosecutor turned him off Democratic politics. "I saw firsthand the failings of the programs of the Great Society," said Cox, who worked on George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

He was recruited to run for attorney general in 2002 and nosed out Gary Peters in one of the closest elections in state history. His tenure has been marked by efforts to beef up child support enforcement, aid those who lost their homes to foreclosures, challenge utility rate cases in the mold of Kelley, and go after those who made fraudulent claims for Medicaid and other assistance.

Cox also is noted for the investigation of the rumored Manoogian bash, which he has called "the gum on my shoe" because no matter what he says or does, it never seems to go away. He's been criticized by officials in the Michigan State Police and others who say he shut down his investigation too soon and didn't question Kilpatrick under oath.

"It's been a little aggravating, yeah," Cox said. "But I made the right call. There was no evidence (of a party). If that's the worst problem I have in life, I'm lucky."

Attack ads called political

The Cox camp contends that ads about the investigation are being aired by friends of an opponent, Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder. The Snyder campaign denies any connection.

The case also surfaces in comments from adversaries such as attorney Norm Yatooma, who is representing the family of a slain dancer who is linked to the alleged party. Yatooma said his dealings with Cox have led him to believe the candidate is "void of character ... to have Mike Cox in charge of the state I live in would be an abomination."

Yatooma also called Cox a "hypocrite" for advocating transparency in government when he hasn't pushed a judge to unseal more than seven hours of testimony the attorney general gave in the murder case.

Cox has said he argued to the judge that his testimony should have been given in open court. It was the judge's call to close it, Cox said. But he has not filed a motion to unseal the testimony.

The candidate is fond of trotting out his 92-point plan that, among other things, calls for scrapping the state's tax on business and slashing government by $4 billion -- a proposal that state Sen. Tom George of Kalamazoo, one of his opponents, calls "a pipe dream." Cox says government must learn to live within its means, just as Michigan's suffering families have done during the economic downturn.

He said his motivation to win is fueled by the stories of family and friends who have been laid off in recent years.

"So many people I know lost their jobs. A lot of them did all the right things. I don't want my kids emigrating to somewhere else ... especially after all my parents went through to get here."

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On the issues

Abortion : Opposes, except to save the life of the mother
Embryonic stem cell research : Opposes
Detroit River International Crossing : Opposes, prefers privately built span
Tax on services : Opposes
Affirmative action ban: Supports
Right to work : Open to the idea
Part-time legislature : Supports
Gas tax increase for roads : Opposes
Arizona-style immigration law for Michigan : Supports

Mike Cox is running on an agenda to shave the state budget, cut taxes and crack down on illegal immigrants. / Robin Buckson / The Detroit News