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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

Michigan congressman won't forget where she came from

HARRISON TOWNSHIP, Mich. - Last week, the best-known woman in Michigan politics wasn't, as usual, commuting from Lansing to her home on the Clinton River.

Instead, Secretary of State Candice Miller was in Washington, attending a series of seminars for new congressmen, and having a ball learning the ropes as a soon-to-be freshman in Congress. One day it was off to the White House to meet President Bush, “and I teased him about having the Red Wings the day before.”

For years, polls have shown she is the most-respected figure in state government. She also may be the best-known; her name is emblazoned on most of the 178 secretary of state branch offices from Marquette to Monroe. But six weeks from now, her bailiwick will shrink to the size of a single congressional district in Michigan's thumb. Junior members of Congress tend to blend into Washington's marble, and it might be predicted that her statewide presence and profile will slowly fade.

Don't bet on it.

“I'll be around,” she said. That seems more than likely. For eight years, the “big three” in Michigan Republican circles have been Gov. John Engler, Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, and Candice Miller. The political careers of the first two, however, now seem over. Ms. Miller, who is only 48, has been moving from strength to strength.

There were many who thought she, not Mr. Posthumus, should have been the Republican candidate for governor this year. More came to the same conclusion after the lieutenant governor, despite a lackluster campaign, made the race surprisingly close. “I wish I had a dime for everyone who told me I would have won!” she laughed, during a telephone interview between sessions.

The fact is that Ms. Miller thought seriously about running for governor, and is convinced she could have won the primary. But she didn't want to split the party, nor did she want to run against Jennifer Granholm. Sexist though it may seem, Ms. Granholm is slim, photogenic, and charismatic. The secretary of state is pleasant and down-to-earth, rather than glamorous.

So instead, she decided to run for a seat in Congress that had been essentially redistricted for her. It wasn't an entirely sure thing; it has about a 54 percent Republican base, but most of it had been represented by Democrats before. She also faced the strongest possible challenger, popular Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga, who ran - as she did - a well-funded and remarkably clean campaign.

Candice Miller won an astonishing 64 percent of the two-party vote. Or maybe not so astonishing. Four years ago, when she was re-elected secretary of state, she got more votes than anyone ever has for any statewide office, and carried every county.

Not bad for a woman who started out without money or connections. Though she has won near-universal acclaim for modernizing and streamlining service in the secretary of state's offices, she has, with the exception of a business course or two, no education beyond high school.

“Well, I think the most important think in my life is sailing - everything stems from that,” she told me once. “You have to make sure that everybody has bought into the theory; the boat can go only one way.”

Indeed, she is an inveterate sailor who grew up working in the family marina and boating on Lake St. Clair. Nowadays, her thoughts are mainly on the real Navy, along with the other armed forces. Her husband, Macomb County Circuit Judge Don Miller, is a former base commander at Selfridge Air Force base in Macomb County, which she likes to note is “the only military installation of any size left in Michigan.”

Better not try closing it on Candice Miller's watch. Ms. Miller knows freshmen can't be picky, but she is hoping for a seat on the armed services committee.

“I think homeland security and the war on terror have to be the top priority now.” Politically, she might be described as a committed, but undogmatic, conservative.

Don't, however, look for her to forget where she came from. She was, she emphasizes proudly, the first major figure to endorse Betsy DeVos for the now-vacant post of state party chair.

Many credit Candice Miller's enthusiastic public endorsement with helping Republican Terri Lynn Land win the race to replace her. (Jennifer Granholm did essentially nothing to help Butch Hollowell, the Democratic nominee, even though the two, unlike Ms. Miller and Ms. Land, are close personal friends.)

What are the odds that Candice Miller will serve a couple terms in Congress - and then return to take on Ms. Granholm in 2006, or if the timing isn't right, try to reclaim the statehouse for the Republicans in 2010?

From a vacant office in Washington, she laughed. “In politics, you never say never, right?” My guess is that the operative word here is “when.”



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