Saturday, Oct 20, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

Macomb County politics in a class by itself — for weirdness

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WARREN, Mich. — Finally — if this year’s presidential election wasn’t wacky enough, look at what may just be the politically craziest county in Michigan, if not the planet.

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That would be Macomb County, the state’s third largest, a place of 850,000 people, small cities, sprawling older suburbs, and, in the north, farm country.

Plus very, very bizarre politics.

For starters, take Jim Fouts, the mayor of Warren, the county’s largest city. Three years ago, video surfaced of the mayor, then 71, and his 27-year-old executive assistant apparently having a romantic tryst in Chicago.

What was especially controversial about that was that soon after the trip, the mayor gave the assistant a huge raise.

Prior to that, the mayor had been known mainly for unsuccessfully battling in the courts to try to conceal his age from the public, and from a strong obsession with Frank Sinatra, whose music he had piped into city offices.

You might think this was political suicide, but things are a little different in Macomb. Last year, the good people of Warren re-elected Mr. Fouts, who got 85 percent of the vote.

Soon afterward, the city gave him a 14 percent raise, and voters then changed the law so that he could run for a fourth term next year.

Back in 2000, a jury found longtime Macomb Sheriff William Hackel guilty of raping a 25-year-old young woman at a Michigan Sheriffs’ Association meeting. Hackel, who left her hotel room and went to dinner with his wife afterward, argued that the sex was consensual.

But he went to prison, and the post was soon filled by … his son, Mark Hackel, a Democrat who today is the county executive. “Family ties have played an extraordinary role in this county’s politics for a few decades,” said Chad Selweski, a journalist whose blog “Politically Speaking” is usually recognized as the best source of news about Macomb.

There is “a sense of entitlement,” among the county’s politicians, he said, which features entrenched families and “close-knit cliques, almost mafia-like in their approach, that reward loyalty and punish freelancing of any kind.”

Macomb wasn’t always this way. Prior to the 1950s, it was a sleepy agricultural area with a county seat, Mount Clemens, known mostly for its mineral baths.

But when Detroit’s white population began to flee to the suburbs, blue-collar workers tended to go northeast to Macomb; white-collar ones west, to Oakland County.

When John F. Kennedy edged Richard Nixon for president in Michigan in 1960, he did so largely by racking up 62 percent of the vote in Macomb, his best showing in any large suburban county in the nation.

However, things changed dramatically in 1980, when blue-collar workers nationwide swung to Ronald Reagan, and the national media fastened on the so-called “Reagan Democrats” of Macomb as their symbol.

Some stories depicted Macomb residents as culturally boorish ethnic whites, largely of Polish or Italian extraction, who don’t much like people of color. But that’s a caricature.

President Obama carried the county twice, and in 2013, Macomb residents voted to support the Detroit Institute of Arts. But there was a big backlash this time. Many Macomb residents clearly didn’t like Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump got 54 percent of the Macomb vote; his plurality of 48,348 was almost four times his statewide margin.

Macomb voters also dashed the region’s hopes for a bus-based regional transit system that would have unified city and suburban buses and added a new fleet of fast ones to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

More than 60 percent of Macomb voters said no, killing it.

But races like the transit proposal and the presidency of the United States weren’t where the excitement was in Macomb County this year. The real action was the race for … public works commissioner, the person who oversees water and sewer infrastructure in the county.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican with a totally safe seat in Congress, gave it up to run for the job, taking on a longtime incumbent, Democrat Anthony Marrocco.

The campaign was bizarre, expensive, and nasty, Final figures are expected to show that at least $3 million was spent on this obscure race.

If you want a sample of the tone, Mr. Selweski reported that “the Miller campaign demanded that Marrocco pay back the $66,000 in attorney fees … spent on defending the public works commissioner in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a girlfriend/​stripper he hired to work in his office.”

For her part, Ms. Miller denied her rival’s claim that she doesn’t have a college degree because “she got knocked up in high school.” In the end, Ms. Miller won.

That wasn’t the weirdest outcome by far, however. Macomb Republicans nominated a woman named Karen Spranger for county clerk. She has no government experience, except the kind that comes from not paying your property taxes on time. Her house has no running water and is in foreclosure.

Larry Rocca has also been frequently late with his taxes and has a long history of legal financial troubles.

Those include defaulting on a personal loan and being fined by the state for improperly handling real estate accounts.

The voters elected him treasurer.

“How to explain it? You can’t,” Mr. Selweski said. “It’s Macomb County politics. It’s a mystery.”

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at:omblade@aol.com.

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