Spranger's shadow hangs over Macomb clerk's race

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — The race to complete a partial term for Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds was supposed to be about providing stability to an office that was a lightning rod for controversy under former clerk Karen Spranger.

Democrat Fred Miller and Republican Lisa Sinclair are vying for the office of Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds.

But the main focus ahead of the Nov. 6 election seems to be county Democrats' effort to paint Republican candidate Lisa Sinclair as “another Karen Spranger” and unfit to hold the $109,000-a-year job for the next two years.

Democratic candidate Fred Miller said he is not responsible for the attacks but does believe Macomb County voters are interested and entitled to know everything about candidates for office.

“I’m a member of the Democratic Party and support Democratic candidates,” said Miller, 44, of Mount Clemens. “But the specter of Karen Spranger hangs over this more than anything in any other race I have ever been in.

“If nothing else, it pointed out why we need to fully vet the candidates for all offices,” Miller said.

Campaign literature sent out by Ed Bruley, chairman of the Macomb County Democratic Party, says “the public didn’t know about Karen Spranger’s troubled past until it was too late after the election.”

Macomb County Democrats have publicized several of Sinclair’s run-ins with the law since 1999, including a drunken driving arrest, her financial difficulties and  spotty voting record.

“I have never even met Karen Spranger,” said Sinclair, 42, of Chesterfield Township. “I have taken full responsibility for mistakes I have made.

“But instead of looking backwards, my focus in recent years has been on moving forward — going to college, becoming an emergency room nurse, and running for office,” she said. “We had an emergency in that office and I think I’m one who can get things back on track.”

Court and police records show Sinclair was arrested in 2003 in connection with a drunken driving accident in Auburn Hills. In 2011, she pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted disorderly-drunk.

The clerk's office has a $4.5 million annual budget and its 85-member staff handles and maintains records and personal business for the county's 870,000-plus residents.

County Democrats said Sinclair has “demonstrated serious problems managing her own records and finances” and cite court records and a 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Lastly, the Democrats said Sinclair’s voting records show she has not voted in 73 percent of elections since 2010.

“We believe it would be risky to put her in charge of elections, official documents and enforcing campaign finance laws, which she has failed to obey, on behalf of the people of Macomb County,” said a statement signed by Bruley and five other Macomb Democratic party officials.

In her only other foray for political office, Sinclair ran for Lansing City Clerk in 2001 and lost by one vote. She acknowledges she made some missteps in her 20s and after a “horrible 2010 divorce.”

“I lost my house,” she said. “I lost everything and had to rebuild my life. And I have done that. I've turned my life around.”

 She characterized the negative campaign against her as “desperate” on Miller’s behalf, especially on the heels of his surprise loss to Spranger by more than 600 votes in 2016.

Newly elected, Spranger went on to spar publicly and in court with county officials on how she should run and staff her office and even where the office would be located.

Spranger was on the losing end of the battles and eventually the county contested her eligibility to hold office, with a judge finding she had falsely claimed a Warren address to run for office.

She was subsequently removed and another clerk — Kathy Smith — was named as a temporary replacement. Smith did not run to complete the unfilled term.

Sinclair and Miller surfaced out of a field of 17 candidates — six Democrats and 11 Republicans — who faced off in the August primary.

Miller, who is an Oakland County deputy treasurer, also served two terms in the state House of Representatives and also as a Macomb County commissioner. He topped all Democratic candidates with 25,291 votes.

Sinclair, a registered nurse who has past experience as a legislative aide in Lansing, garnered 11,637 votes, the highest among Republicans.

Miller has gathered a long list of endorsements: the Michigan Education Association; UAW Region No. 1; Metro Regional Council of Carpenters; AFSCME (which represents employees in the county clerk’s office); Greater Metropolitan Association of Realtors; and Planned Parenthood of Michigan.

One endorsement that escaped Miller was that of the county’s top Democratic officeholder: Mark Hackel, the county executive. To the contrary, at a forum last week, Hackel said he was voting for Sinclair and when one of the attendees asked for his advice, he suggested others also vote for Sinclair.

Hackel expressed concerns about Miller and what he considered deceptive political tactics Miller used in 2016 to run for the clerk’s office at the 11th hour.

When asked to explain his remarks later, Hackel said they fell short of a heart-felt endorsement.

“I’m aware of Sinclair’s past problems they have pointed out and maybe we could do better,” Hackel told The News.

“She might not be the best person for the job but he (Miller) is definitely the wrong person.”

Hackel said Miller attempted to “rig” the primary election in 2016 by being the only Democratic candidate and that the former state lawmaker had inside knowledge that longtime county clerk Carmella Sabaugh had no intention of running for re-election.

“That’s not right,” Hackel said. “I think that’s bad politics and abusing the process and it ended up costing us 15 months of Karen Spranger in that job.”

This is not the first time Hackel has endorsed a Republican for a countywide office. Last election, he came out in support of Candice Miller (no relation to Fred) for Macomb County public works commissioner.

Hackel is seeking a third term as county executive next month and is being challenged by Republican Joe Hunt, who was Spranger’s 2016 campaign manager.

In the clerk's race, Miller describes himself as a “reformer,” saying he wrote the county’s first ethics ordinance and voted three times against “raises for public offices, including myself” while a commissioner. Miller said in Lansing he voted to rescind lifetime health care coverage for lawmakers and authored s law to reform the county road commission.

“When you are a reformer, you can expect there will be pushback,” Miller said, adding. “I’m not in politics to make friends.”

Both Miller and Sinclair applauded Smith and the clerk’s office staff on doing good work during some trying times.

Two things Sinclair hopes to accomplish, if elected, is to collect more than $260,000 in outstanding election fines levied against lobbyists, groups and candidates over the years.

Sinclair also wants to make county marriage certificates, which now cost $20, free of charge.

“I think it’s a good way to promote marriage and two-parent families in the county,” she said.


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