Macomb public works commissioner race closely watched

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

When U.S. Rep. Candice Miller announced she was ending her longtime career in Congress, many political observers assumed she had her eye on the governor’s seat.

The Republican was well-positioned, coming off a successful tenure in the nation’s Capitol, two terms as Michigan secretary of state and a 12-year stint as Harrison Township supervisor.

But Miller surprised the pundits: She would run for Macomb County public works commissioner against Anthony Marrocco — a Democrat who has held the office for 24 years.

It’s Marrocco’s first serious challenge since taking office, with another intriguing twist: Miller’s candidacy is endorsed by County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat.

“There is no doubt that Tony Marrocco has the race of his life right now,” said Joe Munem, a political consultant from Macomb County and former communications director of Warren. “(Miller) is a very aggressive campaigner and is well-funded and very well-known.”

The Miller-Marrocco match-up is the most competitive and closely watched in Macomb County this election season. While Marrocco is unopposed in Tuesday’s primary, Miller has to defeat fellow Republican Joseph M. Hunt to make it to the November ballot and a head-to-head matchup with Marrocco.

Neither Marrocco nor Miller are accustomed to political defeat.

Marrocco has won six consecutive elections for public works commissioner since 1992. Miller has won seven consecutive elections to Congress since 2002.

Marrocco has the support of other top county Democrats, including Clerk Carmella Sabaugh and Prosecutor Eric Smith.

Munem said one reason people are surprised Miller ran for public works commissioner is that many voters don’t understand how the office works. The position also is not considered a launch pad for higher office.

“There are a lot of people who are saying this is not a logical progression for someone who is building up to governor,” Munem said. “(Miller’s) decision to do this has ruled out future opportunities to run for governor.”

A tough rival

Miller told The Detroit News she’s running for public works commissioner because she wants to return home to Macomb County and stop sewage overflows into Lake St. Clair.

“I just decided that we do not have to live this way,” said Miller. “I thought this was an area where I could make a significant impact of really cleaning up our water, stopping beach closures.”

Miller also said she wants to bring more transparency to the public works office and improve underground infrastructure to prevent sewer overflows.

“I would make sure that every community understands exactly why the (sewer) rates are set as they are and what that includes,” Miller said.

Though Marrocco admits Miller is a tough rival, he said she doesn’t have enough experience for the position.

“She knows nothing about this job,” he said. “And she has a terrible voting record on the environment.”

The national League of Conservation Voters — which says it advocates for sound environmental policies — gave Miller a zero on its environmental scorecard and a 12 percent lifetime score.

Miller disputed the the score, saying the LCV is an arm of the Democratic Party.

“I think I have an excellent record on environmental issues in regards to clean water,” Miller said.

Marrocco, who earns a $111,540 salary, also accused the congresswoman of trying to secure a fourth pension from the public works job.

Miller receives an annual pension of $37,470 for her former secretary of state job, according to the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget. She also gets an $11,299 annual pension from Harrison Township, where she served as supervisor, and will earn another pension once she retires from Congress at the end of her term this year.

Miller denies money is the driving force.

She said she’s long been an advocate for the Great Lakes and water quality — she’s an avid sailor — and serves on the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

“I do understand how it works,” Miller said. “I’d like to make that department a force for good, rather than the very negative reputation it has developed over the last couple of decades.”

Sewage overflows

Miller said county residents complained to her about the public works operations after sewage overflows two years ago caused basements to flood in Chesterfield Township.

The homeowners sued the public works department in 2015 to be compensated for their losses. Miller criticized the department for not resolving those complaints and pledged to stop sewage overflows if elected.

Her solution would be to separate storm water and sewage, and to provide the capacity at the pump stations to properly treat storm sewage, Miller said.

Marrocco argued Detroit-based Walsh Construction was accountable for those overflows because it was performing upgrades to the Clintondale Pump Station in Clinton Township when it happened. Walsh will be responsible for reimbursing residents, he said.

David Hayes, attorney for Walsh Construction, disputed that statement, saying the company’s work did not cause the basements to flood.

“It is our position that we don’t have any liability,” Hayes said.

The drain commissioner is responsible for operating a countywide system of 952 drains, 11 pump stations and 10 retention basins. The job also involves administering the county’s soil erosion program, building drains and managing the Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District, which provides sewer service to 11 communities.

Aggressive fundraising

Miller has a tough race on her hands, Munem said.

Not only does Marrocco have more experience in public works, but he’s one of the most aggressive campaign fundraisers in Macomb County, Munem said.

Marrocco’s campaign committee raised $110,000 as of July 22 — the pre-primary filing deadline — according to campaign finance records from the Macomb County Clerk’s Office.

He also has two political action committees that are well-funded. According to state campaign finance records, the PACs have raised a combined total of $1.5 million since 2004.

Miller’s campaign committee raised $530,000 as of July 22, according to the clerk’s office.

Hunt, the other Republican candidate, reported his campaign committee has raised $1,200.

Hunt, who has worked in the computer industry for the past 25 years, said he decided to run for drain commissioner because he was fed up with Marrocco.

He accused the incumbent of running a pay-to-play operation with contractors. Marrocco has denied requiring firms to pay money for contracts.

Hunt said he would bring integrity and honesty to the public works department. This election marks the sixth time Hunt has ran for public office since 2011, he said.

“In order to change the way people think about how government operates, you have to replace the people,” Hunt said. “What this is doing is it’s bringing in the public light that (Marrocco has) been there too long and the sewer overflows are unacceptable.”

Run like a business

Hackel said his endorsement of Miller wasn’t about party affiliations. He said Marrocco has not communicated well with county officials and refuses to follow the county’s hiring practices.

Hackel also accused Marrocco of intimidating public officials with the millions of dollars he has raised in his PACs.

“It’s unacceptable that you’ve got public officials that are afraid of the guy because of a PAC that he has,” Hackel said. “How does a guy get that much money into a political action committee that’s (for) a public works commissioner?”

Hackel said he believes Miller would be more inclusive and work closely with other county offices.

But Sabaugh, the outgoing county clerk, said Marrocco has gained the trust of people in Macomb County.

“Tony Marrocco has the experience, he has the heavy lifting and people feel confident with him at the helm,” she said.

Marrocco dismissed any notions he intimidated people.

He said he has spent his time in office ensuring the water was clean, keeping sewer rates down and every year spending less than the department’s budget, which is about $6.6 million this year.

“I run it like a business,” he said. “I try to save everyone a little bit of money.”

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