Today marks a monumental moment in Macomb County and Michigan politics as it appears that the controversial Rocca family dynasty, based in Sterling Heights, has reached its end.
The state Board of Canvassers today bounced Tory Rocca off the ballot following the term-limited state senator’s lackluster bid to continue serving in government as a Macomb County Circuit Court judge. The decision by the canvassers that the Republican senator’s nominating petitions fell short of the required valid signatures means that the upcoming elections will mark the first time since 1974 that a Rocca does not appear on the ballot for state or local office.
For 44 years, Rocca’s father, Sal, and his step-mother, Sue, served as masters of the name-game politics that has dominated Macomb County elections for nearly a half century. Tory carried on the family tradition, winning numerous elections to the state House and Senate.
So, it’s supremely embarrassing for Tory to come up short on his petition signatures, which is normally a routine matter.
I would like to think that Macomb County voters approached to sign the Rocca petitions in recent months finally wised up, as Tory’s short-lived judicial campaign blatantly revealed the Rocca family ’s shallow ways. At age 27, Tory acquired a law degree in 2000 as he was campaigning for his debut as a state representative in that year’s elections. As best as I can determine, he never spent more than a few months as an attorney and has no experience as a courtroom litigator.
Yet, the Rocca way was to shamelessly campaign this year for a seat on Macomb County’s highest court, regardless of qualifications. And Tory probably would have won election to the open seat that is up for grabs except for the astounding fact that he somehow could not manage to collect 2,000 valid petition signatures despite the political privileges he has enjoyed throughout much of his adult life due to his surname.
Participants in Macomb’s name-game take advantage of a blatant emphasis on lineage – and voter confusion. Voters ask: “Which Rocca is that? Well … I’ll vote for him.” Back in the day, Macomb’s old-time politicians, regardless of the damaging aspects of a news story at hand, would cynically tell reporters, “Just spell my name right.”
Sal Rocca was first elected to the state House in 1974 and, with the exception of one expected loss in 1980, he initially served for nearly 20 years. In the process, he switched parties from Democrat to Republican and, in a bid to avoid term limits, he and his wife, Sue, began a musical chairs act as they alternately served as state House members and Macomb County commissioners. Without any political experience, Sue first ran as S. Rocca – a blatant attempt to mislead voters, many of whom thought they were casting a ballot for her husband.
When House term limits ran out for both spouses, and Sal’s bid for a Senate seat turned out badly, they immediately switched to Tory as the heir of the Rocca legacy. True to form, Tory began his foray by telling voters that his political experience began in the late-1970s (when he would have been approximately age five), campaigning for his dad.
But he never lost an election. Tory served the maximum six years in the House and is wrapping up eight years in the state Senate.
The sense of entitlement is what is most troubling in these games played by Macomb’s political hierarchy, as parents, spouses, siblings and those with lesser relations – or none at all — feed off a familiar name. This practice has included Vivianos, Switalskis, Millers, Chrzanowskis, Servittos, Maceronis and Faunces. Macomb is known for its bloody political campaigns, but it’s also known for the bloodlines that lead to election success.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this unending trend came in 2016 when a Rocca (who was not that kind of Rocca) was dubiously elected by Macomb voters. A perennial candidate, Larry Rocca has a history of legal and financial troubles and had tried to cash in on the Rocca name at the ballot box for two decades, though he is not related to Sal, Sue or Tory.
In November 2016, the Clinton Township Republican was shockingly elected county treasurer by a tiny margin. No doubt, many voters wrongly assumed that he was the Rocca who served as a state representative or state senator. Rest assured, if ex-county Clerk Karen Spranger had lost her election bid in 2016, it would be Larry Rocca who would be serving as the county’s most controversial elected official in decades – or at least since disgraced ex-state senator Dave Jaye.
One more thing: Any political insider with more than a handful of knowledge about Macomb’s wacky politics would tell you that the headline I wrote (above) for this piece may be misleading. At age 44, Tory Rocca is young enough, and savvy enough, to make another run for public office.
I would guess that Election 2020 may represent the narrow timeline now embraced by the family plan.