I’m still shaking my head in disbelief over four election outcomes in Macomb County.
On Tuesday, voters in Macomb elected four damaged, lowly candidates, including two running for top offices – county clerk and county treasurer. The two others were prominently in the news over the past several weeks for controversies that would normally sink the candidacy of even a popular politician.
And I’m still trying to figure out why, other than perhaps voter ignorance or confusion, this happened.
Without even trying, the Macomb Republican Party had its best showing in more than 60 years for the “Big Five” countywide offices – clerk, treasurer, public works commissioner, sheriff and prosecutor – winning three of the five seats. (The county executive is elected separately, during gubernatorial election years.)
Bucci beats the odds
But first, let’s consider the plight of Dino Bucci, re-elected as Macomb Township trustee even as he was in the glare of the media spotlight due to a lawsuit that claimed he had demanded $76,000 in kickbacks from a township developer. News reports showed Bucci, a Republican, at a township board meeting facing catcalls from an angry crowd who wanted him to resign.
Rather than forcefully defending himself from the allegations, Bucci was on the run. When Channel 4 tried to interview him, he fled to his car and drove away.
Fairly or unfairly, he was often mentioned in the same sentence with two other township officials in Macomb County who have been indicted by the feds on corruption charges.
What’s more, Bucci was tagged with the taint of his boss, soon-to-be ex-Public Works Commissioner Tony Marrocco, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid to Republican Candice Miller, who ran on a “clean government” platform. Bucci was Marrocco’s longtime right-hand man as Marrocco was trying to fend off a series of campaign embarrassments: secretly spending $5 million on lawyers and passing the bill off onto sewer ratepayers; hiring and then firing a stripper/girlfriend; and violating the county’s ethics ordinance.
One could argue that Bucci received the benefit of the doubt from township voters, that Tuesday’s tallies reflected a backlash in the trustee’s favor or maybe a sympathy vote. But if that were the case, the veteran township official likely would have finished first in the running for four trustee seats. Instead, Bucci finished fourth, only about 1,000 votes ahead of the lone Democrat running in a township that is a Republican stronghold.
I suspect many of those who plunked down their vote for the incumbent knew little or nothing about his troubles.
Marino survives disastrous campaign
Next, we have Steve Marino Harrison Township, a brash rookie county commissioner who won a state House seat despite enduring one of the worst campaigns in recent Macomb County history. As was reported by various news outlets, Marino, 27, was caught on tape espousing his support for U.S. corporations that outsource jobs overseas or that take advantage of child labor in poor countries.
On these audio recordings, the Republican Rep.-elect said he wanted to raise the Social Security retirement age to 75. He bragged about dodging property taxes on his lakefront home. And he churlishly recounted the times as a lobbyist when he paid off big bar tabs racked up by state legislators.
All of this, of course, would normally mark the death knell for a candidate, especially one that is not well known. He also faced another hurdle in that he was running against a Democrat, former county commissioner Dana Camphous Peterson, who was proudly supported by Macomb’s most popular elected official, County Executive Mark Hackel.
Yet, Marino won by a comfortable 55-45 percent margin largely because all of his miscues were trumped by the top of the ticket. Donald Trump won easily in the 24th District (Harrison Township and parts of Macomb and Clinton townships) and that apparently was enough to pull Marino along to victory.
Many Trump supporters who voted the straight ticket for Republicans probably still don’t realize that they cast a vote for Marino.
Rocca keeps the skeletons in his closet
Far more surprising – and disturbing – was the election of Larry Rocca as county treasurer and Karen Spranger as county clerk.
The incumbent Democratic candidate for treasurer, Derek Miller of Warren (no relation to Candice), was appointed to the office in February after serving as a state representative and assistant county prosecutor. A perennial candidate, Rocca has a history of legal troubles and has tried to cash in on the Rocca name for two decades, though he is not related to Sal, Sue or Tory – the Roccas who have served in the Legislature. In his 2008 bid to become the county’s tax collector, it was reported that Rocca had defaulted on a personal loan and suffered a court judgment to pay $26,000 to a bank. He was delinquent on his property taxes five times in a 10-year period. And he was fined by the state for improperly handling reserve accounts at his real estate office.
Now, as the treasurer-elect, winning by the slimmest of margins, 50.2 to 49.8 percent, Rocca will serve for the next four years as the caretaker of hundreds of millions of tax dollars. Voters should have known about his past because Tuesday marked the Clinton Township Republican’s third consecutive run for the treasurer seat. The first two times, in 2008 and 2012, he was handily defeated by the late Ted Wahby.
Anonymity a winning formula for clerk
Meanwhile, the election for clerk marked the first time that coveted seat has been open in 24 years. The Democrats nominated county Commissioner Fred Miller (no relation to Candice or Derek), a former state representative from Mount Clemens, and the Republicans chose Karen Spranger, a political gadfly from Warren. Spranger has no experience within government except for ongoing battles with the city over her refusal to pay property taxes. She has failed to pay her taxes on time in 12 of the last 14 years, according to county records. The ramshackle house she claims as her home has no water service and is in foreclosure but Spranger claims she deserves a poverty exemption from paying her tax bill, an argument she pursued until she lost her case in the state Court of Appeals. What makes her razor-thin victory (50.1 to 49.9 percent) all the more unbelievable is that she spent a barely perceptible $1,400 on her countywide campaign.
Voters didn’t know who she was because she made no effort to gain their support.
How to explain all this? Who knows.
The Trump surge certainly generated some unexpected wins for Republicans, in Macomb and across Michigan. But the losses by Derek Miller and Fred Miller, who were better known and well-funded, cannot be explained only by the Trump factor.
At the same time that they were losing, two Democratic incumbents among the “Big Five” county offices – Prosecutor Eric Smith and Sheriff Tony Wickersham – coasted to victory. If straight-ticket voting by the GOP was a determining factor, Smith and Wickersham likely would be looking for a job.
Three Millers — two too many?
Perhaps Republicans simply blended the two Millers together in their minds and decided it was time to put an end to the local Democratic dynasty behind the Miller name – Derek’s father is former state senator Art Miller, Jr.; his grandmother was longtime county clerk Edna Miller; and his grandfather, Art Miller, Sr., was the first mayor of Warren.
However, that doesn’t make much sense because it suggests a mindset that punished Fred Miller, though he is not related to the others, and it conflicts with the solid win by the third Miller, Candice, a Harrison Township Republican, in the public works race. Candice, who is retiring from Congress, is certainly the best known of the three Millers. But would voter confusion about the Miller name apply to some but not all three Millers?
Another factor could be an infusion of new voters at the polls on Tuesday who were inspired to come out and support Trump. One amazing statistic from Election Night is that Trump won the county by 48,000 votes, a 64,000-vote swing compared to the win here by President Obama in 2012.
That may be one of the biggest shifts in this presidential race among all suburban counties in America. But it also marks a jolting flip on the part of thousands of voters, from Obama to Trump, because the countywide turnout, 67 percent, was fairly routine for a presidential vote in Macomb. In other words, there was no surge of new voters for Trump.
Choosy voters choose to confuse
Another mind-bending factor is the lack of any pattern to the election results. As usual, most Macomb voters were ticket-splitters, choosing some Republicans and some Democrats as they made their way down the ballot. Of the 424,000 votes cast, less than half were straight-ticket voters, and a majority of those were Democrats – 98,000 vs. 93,000 for the GOP. This electorate was a choosy bunch.
They voted for Trump, for one of the Millers and against the other two, for state House Republicans facing tough races, but also for the incumbent Democrats on the county Board of Commissioners facing re-election.
One prominent victim of the ticket-splitting was county commissioner candidate Linda Torp of Harrison Township, where Trump, Candice Miller and Marino all posted solid GOP wins. But Torp, the chair of the Macomb County Republican Party, lost.
How to explain it? You can’t.
It’s Macomb County politics. It’s a mystery.