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Candice Miller takes D.C. experience to county position

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — In the House of Representatives, it’s tradition for chairmen to commission a portrait to hang in the committee room long after they’ve retired the gavel.

But as she prepared to leave the Committee on House Administration this year, retiring Republican Rep. Candice Miller — the only woman to chair a committee in the last two sessions of Congress — would not sit for a portrait. She saw the tradition as odd and wasteful.

That came as no surprise to colleagues or staff, who know her as the practical-minded lawmaker who went to Washington for a job each week and then went home. No frills, no fuss, no nonsense.

“She never lost touch with real people and political reality. It’s very rare. A lot of people here can get caught up with themselves,” said Republican Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a friend who joined the House in the same class as Miller in 2002.

Back then, Miller was the popular Michigan secretary of state who handily beat Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga for the newly drawn 10th District, encompassing northern Macomb County and most of Michigan’s Thumb region.

While she’s leaving Congress, Miller, 62, isn’t leaving public service. Next week, she will be sworn in as public works commissioner for Macomb County. Businessman Paul Mitchell will take her 10th District seat.

Miller returns home as part of a small, elite group of women to be elected to statewide office in Michigan and to serve both in state government and Congress. Others include Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and the late U.S. Rep. Martha Wright Griffiths, a former lieutenant governor.

“Think of the firsts: First woman secretary of state. First woman elected Macomb County treasurer. First woman elected Harrison Township supervisor,” said Liz Boyd, a public relations executive and a Democrat in Lansing who nominated Miller for the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame this year.

“She probably could have served the 10th district forever if she wanted.”

Miller, who believes in term limits, did not want to stay forever. She had grown weary of the flights between Detroit and Washington as well as the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Miller feels she made an impact in Washington. In Congress, she focused on issues of national defense, including border security, and protecting the Great Lakes.

She was a staunch advocate of Selfridge Air National Guard base in Harrison Township, which had been threatened under the Base Realignment and Closure process, and when the Air Force targeted the A-10 aircraft for retirement. She and others in Congress amended defense bills to block divestment of the A-10 fleet.

Of all the plaques and honors Miller received, the only one she shipped home from her D.C. office was the Harry S. Truman Award. The National Guard Association of the United States gave it to her in 2012 in thanks for an amendment she authored to give the head of the National Guard Bureau a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“For all these years, the National Guard didn’t have a seat at the table – didn’t have a say,” Miller said in an interview.

“After 9/11, you had the largest call-up of the Guard and reserves since World War II, and the 30th percentile of everyone who’s in theater is either Guard or reserve. I always say: A bullet doesn’t know if you’re active duty or Guard and reserve.”

As chair of the Administration Committee, a position known as “Mayor of Capitol Hill” for its oversight of day-to-day House operations, Miller ushered in transparency measures that made it easier for citizens, journalists and others to access the expenses of individual House members. It wasn’t popular with all of her colleagues in the House, Miller admitted.

“I mean, what’s the big secret? Put it online. We’ve done that in the last year here, which was quite a sea change, quite frankly,” Miller said.

“Transparency leads to accountability. People should be able to understand very readily how their dollars are being spent. They’re our employers, is how I look at it.”

She had the unpopular job in 2013 of ensuring fellow House members slashed their office budgets to comply with required, across-the-board federal spending cuts.

Miller lost a bid in the 113th Congress to chair the Homeland Security Committee, where she had climbed the ranks and served as a subcommittee chair. In a tight race, GOP leadership passed her over for a Texas congressman, in part because of concerns that Michigan had too many committee chairs, three of 21, at the time.

She served as vice chair of Homeland Security and was disappointed her bill to tighten security at the borders never gained enough traction to become law. She expects that will change under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned on border security issues, promising to build a wall along the Southern border.

“Obviously, even though the Congress didn’t have the political will to pass it, the American people had the political will, which they demonstrated on November the 8th,” Miller said.

“I don’t think you’re a racist for wanting to have secure borders. … I do think the American people would be open to immigration reform, but you have to demonstrate to them that you’re going to secure the borders first.”

Cole, who has known Miller for about 25 years, gave her a nickname after seeing a powerful speech she gave on the House floor.

“She was going after Democrats, and I was like, you are the Blonde Bomber,” said Cole, laughing at the memory.

Miller could also be tough on her own party and shared her mind — something that House speakers valued, Cole said. He recalled a 2013 meeting of the Republican Conference in which Miller criticized the decision to shut down the government over Obamacare.

“She said this was bad politics and bad governance and would not work, and it would fail in the end,” Cole said. “And she was absolutely prophetic in those remarks. ... She said, we’ve already proved we’re against Obamacare. We’ve voted against it dozens of times. On any occasion, she gave you an unvarnished opinion that was grounded in reality.”

Miller would partner with Democrats, at times. In March, she and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, shared a concern about Plains LPG Services’ proposed use of a pair of 98-year-old, idled pipelines under the St. Clair and Detroit rivers.

They sought an extension of the comment period for the company’s federal permit application, so that more stakeholders could register concerns that any oil spill would spread rapidly and have a regional impact. The firm later withdrew its permit application.

“She was a very good mentor to me in the Congress,” said Dingell, who just finished her freshman term. “We may have had different thoughts on how to solve a problem, but we respected each other, we could talk to each other and we could work together.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

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