In 2016, with so much at stake across the political ledger, one of the most intriguing – and expensive – election races in all of Michigan involved the competition for Macomb County public works commissioner.
Democratic incumbent Tony Marrocco’s thumping loss at the November 2016 ballot box to former Republican congresswoman Candice Miller put him on the shelf after a quarter century of playing the role of political kingmaker.
Since his initial election as public works commissioner (county drain commissioner) in 1992, Marrocco had established a reputation as the “Godfather” of Macomb County politics because of his hardball approach toward distinguishing friends and enemies to maintain his 24-year reign at the public works office.
With his vast supply of campaign funds derived from the developers and builders he was supposed to regulate, Marrocco used two spectacularly funded political action committees (PACs) and his re-election committee to wreak havoc in Macomb County elections. Because competent challengers to Marrocco’s seat shied away, he was free to freelance at election time and inspire fear in Macomb County officials who were deemed his adversaries.
County commissioners, Republicans and Democrats, who tangled with him were routinely targeted for defeat – usually by first-time, fellow Italian candidates consisting of an ethnic clique consisting of Marrocco buddies such as developers, home builders, or landlords with real estate holdings.
A few years ago, Marrocco boldly declared campaign war on several commissioners who opposed dubious salary increases he proposed for his top aides – amounts that exceeded $20,000 a year.
To be clear, Marrocco’s political insurgency tactics often failed, mostly because he recruited political amateurs to run against seasoned veterans. But his quiet dominance over the political landscape shook people up.
That’s partly because he controlled two statewide PACs that gobbled up more campaign cash than some of the state’s top officials and prime-time corporations that are big players in Lansing politics.
In his wildly controversial 2016 re-election campaign, Marrocco’s desire to maintain his political kingdom was so intense that he sparked the most expensive county election race in Michigan history — $3.3 million. The desperate Democratic incumbent spent two-thirds of that total, including $1.4 million from his own wallet.
Yet, in this 2018 post-Marrocco era, perhaps the under-the-radar bullying tactics facing elected Macomb officials each election year are over – more than two decades later.
In a county where the FBI has uncovered numerous instances of political corruption, including old-school cash bribes in envelopes and paper bags, a sea change has (hopefully) occurred in how our officials carry on. Marrocco’s right-hand man – some might say his “bag man” – Dino Bucci, was among those snared by the feds’ wide net. He faces 18 criminal counts.
Marrocco, 70, formerly of Ray Township, was an imposing figure even as he remained reclusive for many years as public works commissioner, sending his lackeys to various public meetings where he was supposed to show up.
A wealthy developer before his entrance into politics in the 1980s as a county commissioner, Marrocco was famous in political circles for throwing elaborate fundraising parties for his quadrennial re-election campaigns.
Though he never faced a serious challenge at the ballot box until 2016, he maintained a campaign cash juggernaut. Now, those PAC funds are depleted and Marrocco is nowhere to be found, apparently living in his second home in Florida. He is, after all this time, a political pariah.
So far, Marrocco remains untouched in the widespread scandals exposed by the FBI. Going forward, perhaps our federal law enforcement officers will strike more fear into pay-to-play local businessmen and elected officials than The Godfather ever did.
Photo: 2016 Marrocco campaign — I always wondered how any water testing of Lake St. Clair would ever produce a nearly neon blue result in a test tube.