August 6, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Ficano nice, but never his own man

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano appears with supporters on Tuesday in Taylor. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Cleaning out a desk drawer the other day I came across a letter Bob Ficano sent me several years ago after I’d written a column about the wedding of my oldest daughter.

He connected it to the emotions he felt when dropping his own daughter off at college, writing, “For a week, I would peek into her empty bedroom every morning — knowing everything had changed forever.”

It was a sweet note, and spoke to everything I know about Bob Ficano as a person. He’s genuine, kind-hearted and one of the politicians least affected by the trappings and power of office.

Another example: I saw the Wayne County executive at a Fourth of July concert at Greenfield Village. He was moving through the crowd loaded down with a cooler and lawn chairs. The other politicos and celebrities who showed up that night headed straight to the VIP section and its free food and comfy seats. Ficano spread his blanket on the lawn and enjoyed the music unrecognized and uncelebrated.

I never thought much of Ficano’s leadership or management skills. But I always admired his down-to-earth demeanor.

That’s why I was surprised at the nature of his undoing. In a county where voters value name ID and incumbency over everything, Ficano was on his way to being turned out in Tuesday night’s primary balloting, a clear rebuke of the scandals that plagued his office during the past term.

I can’t recall the last time a sitting Wayne County officeholder lost an election. That tells you a lot about how badly Ficano screwed up. It was a stunning tumble for a cautious guy who spent most of his 31-year career in elected office playing by the book, avoiding risks and taking care of those who must be taken care of in Wayne County.

Nobody really knew who Ficano was in 1983, when his boss, County Clerk Jim Kileen orchestrated a power play that made his top aide the county’s sheriff. He replaced Bill Lucas, who became the first county executive under the new charter.

Lucas wanted the job to go to Undersheriff Loren Pittman, and other county power brokers were angling to move John Hertel into the sheriff’s office. But Kileen outmaneuvered them, and Ficano, who knew nothing about police work, pinned on a badge.

In 2002, he replaced the late Ed McNamara as county executive. In both jobs, he marched to the tune called by the United Auto Workers. He built a loyal team of out-of-work local pols, union bosses and other influence brokers whom he gave cushy jobs and let tap into the county’s obscenely rich benefits stream.

It was a formula that should have kept him in office until he decided to retire on his own fat pension.

Then Ficano inexplicably strayed. Maybe something happened in his personal life. Maybe Wayne County’s culture of self-dealing and situational ethics finally clouded his judgment.

But an office that had been bland and scandal free suddenly started wheeling and dealing, dumping money into high-risk development deals — a horse racing track that quickly collapsed, a downtown skyscraper — and crafting pension schemes for insiders that would make Bernie Madoff proud.

Shady characters popped up — Azzam Elder, the deputy who wanted everyone to know he was smarter than the boss; Turkia Mullin, who wasn’t satisfied with just parlaying her county service into a lucrative job at the airport — she rolled the dice on a $250,000 severance payout to boot; Michael Grundy, the top aide who couldn’t keep his hand out of the till.

Add in the $200 million of taxpayer money squandered on a new county jail that will never be finished and Ficano was done. Even with an electorate that rarely links its vote to performance.

The most asked question: Is Ficano a crook, or just dumb? A dupe or a mastermind? My take is that he’s a nice guy who was never his own man. He took his assignments from his political bosses, and plodded on.

It was when he got coaxed into creativity that he got in trouble. It’s often said that a politician is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with. In Ficano’s case, he became as bad as those around him, too bad even for Wayne County.

nfinley@detroitnews.com
(313)222-2064
Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.