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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2003

Direction is clear for Michigan's new attorney general

LIVONIA, Mich. - His life story almost sounds like a movie from another era. He was the son of Irish immigrants, a carpenter, and a domestic servant. There was no money for college, so he enlisted in the U.S. Marines, served with distinction, and later went to the University of Michigan.

He wanted to be a lawyer ever since his father was swindled out of payment for a carpentry job he did. “I will never forget how helpless my family felt that day. That experience drove me to become a prosecutor, to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background, has someone on their side.”

Most saw him as a hopeless underdog when he launched a race for state attorney general. For most of election night, he was behind. But when the final votes were in, Mike Cox had pulled off an upset, winning by 5,200 votes out of 3 million.

Once again he repeated his signature campaign pledge - to go after deadbeat parents who don't pay child support, something he personally knows all about. As he candidly admits, he fathered a child out of wedlock when he was young, a daughter whose mother left - and left the young Marine with all the responsibilities.

Were this in fact a movie, the 41-year-old Mr. Cox would naturally be a Democrat. Instead he is a conservative Republican, who has been working hard to remake an office his party hasn't held since 1954.

Within his first month, Mr. Cox launched a major retooling of the attorney general's office. He reorganized it into five bureaus - Consumer Protection, Child and Family Services, Economic Development and Oversight, Governmental Affairs, and Criminal Justice.

“The bureau chiefs in charge will have more authority and ability to make decisions than division heads did before,” he said. The goal is to streamline the way the office he calls the “public's lawyer” and its 300 staff attorneys do business.

“The attorney general's office has made a name for itself by taking on consumer protection issues,” Mr. Cox said in a coffee shop last week near his home in the Wayne County suburb of Livonia, “and I'm anxious to build on that foundation.”

Michigan is facing the mother of all budget crises - a nearly $2 billion deficit - and in that world of hurt, the attorney general's office is in a unique position. It is the only major branch of state government that brings in more money than it costs. That, Mr. Cox hopes, will help ward off major slashing. But what is perhaps politically most interesting is that his predecessor is both his main client and a potential political rival: Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.

What is odder still is that there have been, in fact, only two Michigan attorneys general during Mike Cox's entire life. Ms. Granholm held the post for one four-year term, the last half of which she spent campaigning for governor. Before her, however, the legendary “eternal general” Frank Kelley had the office nearly 38 years, before stepping down to enter private practice and a lobbying firm.

“Frank Kelley was very helpful to me during the transition,” Mr. Cox said, with obvious affection. Though the eternal general is a liberal Democrat, his successor praises his fellow Irishman, calling him “a hero of mine” and pledging “to build on the enduring legacy of Frank Kelley to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”

While he is polite and, well, correct, he has no such warmth for Ms. Granholm. “She met with me for an hour” before the office changed hands, he said, allowing that she was busy with her own transition. He wasn't too pleased with the state of the office when he arrived. “There were computers without disc drives,” he said.

“There didn't seem to be a general sense of what we ought to be as a law office,” he said, before adding puckishly, “But she did leave a couple re-elect Ed McNamara coffee mugs and some McNamara buttons.” Mr. McNamara, Ms. Granholm's political patron and the longtime Wayne County Democratic boss, is the target of a federal investigation. The state attorney general's office is not involved.

Soon, Mr. Cox hopes to announce his plans to aggressively pursue deadbeat parents who collectively owe the state and 600,000 dependent children, he estimates, $6 billion. “As attorney general, I will protect these children,” he vows.

Unlike his predecessor, he is not, he says with a laugh, running for governor. Well, maybe not yet. But with John Engler and Dick Posthumus gone and Candice Miller in Washington, Michigan Republicans are a bit short on statewide leaders. Don't be surprised if his party starts paying a lot more attention fairly soon.



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