Connecting state and local government leaders
Former Representative Candice Miller gave up a senior post in the House to manage the drains and sewers of Macomb County, Michigan. She has no regrets.
The typical career path for senior members of Congress who give up their seats is to cash in and take richly paid jobs as lobbyists or consultants. Others run for higher office, typically for governor or senator.
Few of them do what Candice Miller did in 2015, when the seven-term Republican decided not to run for reelection, giving up her post as the lone woman committee chairman in the House. Miller returned to Michigan and last year asked the voters of Macomb County to let her run their sewers and drains. And by the time she took over as the county’s public-works commissioner in January, she discovered that she had escaped the metaphorical swamp of D.C. only to clean up a literal one back home.
Last Christmas Eve, a week before Miller, 63, was to start her new job, a major county sewer line ruptured and opened a sinkhole the size of a high-school football field. Two days later, millions of gallons of raw sewage began flowing into a river that feeds into the Great Lakes.
“It wasn’t quite what I was expecting to walk into,” Miller told me recently, chuckling as she recalled her hectic transition from running hearings in Congress to inspecting storm drains in Macomb. “About 600,000 people flush their toilets through this interceptor, and now it collapsed.”
Miller wasn’t complaining—far from it. “I couldn’t be happier where I am right now, to tell you the truth,” she said. When we spoke, she had just gotten back from inspecting another aging storm drain, an impromptu but not uncommon site visit that she decided to take after one of her contractors sent her iPhone photos of its decay. After the sinkhole opened in December, Miller got into a steel cage (“It looks like a shark cage, almost”) that would take her to the bottom of the interceptor so she could take a close look at the damage.
“I’m a hands-on person,” she explained.
That a veteran politician would find more satisfaction being lowered into a pit of sewage than making national policy in Washington says a lot about the state of Congress at the moment. Ordinarily, it’s the members of the minority party who flee the Capitol in droves after a few years out of power, once they get sufficiently tired of seeing their legislative proposals squelched without so much as a hearing.
But in the last few years, Republicans have suffered as much of an exodus as Democrats have, and it’s not only the old-timers who are leaving. In the Senate, Bob Corker of Tennessee is giving up a powerful perch as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to retire after just two six-year terms—a relative blink of an eye in a chamber where longevity is measured in decades. Miller’s Michigan colleague, Representative Dave Trott, decided last month he’d had it less than halfway through his third year in office; he won’t run again in 2018. And last week, Representative Pat Tiberi of Ohio joined Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah in announcing plans to leave before his term is up. For Tiberi, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the decision might mean he’d leave before seeing the enactment of comprehensive tax reform, perhaps his foremost goal in Congress.
Like the others, Miller was neither swept out by the voters nor forced out by a scandal’s disgrace. She just got tired of the dysfunction and knew it was time to leave a job she never planned to hold for so long. “When I first ran for the Congress, I honestly never thought I would stay there for seven terms,” Miller told me. “I know everybody says that. Everybody says, ‘Oh, I never thought I would ever be here this long,’ but now they’re there 20 years, 30 years, or however long they’re there. But I really thought, ‘Well, I’ll be there six, maybe eight, then it’s 10, then it’s 12.’
“It’s because it’s very insidious, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” she continued. “I mean, pretty soon you’re moving up in seniority.” Miller had become chair of the House Administration Committee, the only Republican chairwoman in a party still dominated by men. She had first run for the House after September 11 as a security hawk in 2002, and she had worked her way up to a subcommittee chairmanship on the Homeland Security Committee. It was a fight that held up the passage of a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security—the petty details of which she said she’d already forgotten—that Miller described as the final straw. “I just thought to myself, ‘This is crazy,’” she recalled. “This place is so dysfunctional.”
There was a long gap between when Miller decided, in the spring of 2015, not to run for reelection and when she opted to run for public-works commissioner in Macomb many months later. She considered a number of private-sector offers, including lobbying in Washington, but passed on them. As she spoke to friends back home, she began to seriously weigh returning to local government, where she began her political career with stints as a township supervisor, county treasurer, and then Michigan secretary of state. Miller’s allies encouraged her to challenge Anthony Marrocco, the 24-year Democratic incumbent whose office was becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Macomb’s county executive, Mark Hackel, also a Democrat, went so far as to pledge his support for Miller if she got into the race. “Everywhere she’s gone, she’s turned whatever the situation was that she walked into better than what it once was,” Hackel said in an interview. “I offered her the thought of running for public works and told her, ‘If you do that and you announce, I will endorse you the moment you announce you were running for that office.’”
Hackel said he had virtually no communication or cooperation with Marrocco’s office, despite the two men representing the same party. “Everything was a quid pro quo,” he told me. “‘You want something? This is what I need from you.’ I don’t work under those conditions.” Before she entered the race, Miller’s friends warned her that with Marrocco’s reputation for protecting his turf, Macomb politics could get as nasty as Washington’s. Marrocco fought aggressively, writing his campaign a $1.1 million loan check in what became one of the most expensive county races in the state’s history.
Miller leaned heavily on Hackel’s endorsement and ran on a slogan of “Clean Water, Clean Government.” She won by nine points in a surprisingly strong year for Republicans in Macomb, the old home of Reagan Democrats that Donald Trump carried in the presidential election. In our interview, Miller made sure to point out that she overperformed Trump in the county in November. “I love Trump,” she said with a laugh, “but I didn’t come in on his coattails.”
While some of Miller’s House colleagues were surprised by her decision to return to local politics, those who knew her best were less taken aback. “That’s who she is: She sees a problem, and tries to find a solution,” said Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and a close friend. Several lawmakers, Miller said, came up to her to reminisce about their own time in local government, as mayors, or sheriffs, or county executives. And although public-works commissioner is not a fancy title—until 1976, it was the even less sexy “drain commissioner”—it’s an important post. “It’s not like a dogcatcher role,” said Representative Fred Upton, another Michigan Republican. “You better do it right, because no one wants a flooded house or home or community.”
Miller learned that before she even took office. She partnered with Hackel, who introduced her at a press conference near the sinkhole site on New Year’s Day as “the new sheriff in town.” Miller quickly replaced top staff in the 65-person office, poaching talent from other agencies. The $75 million project to replace the collapsed sewer line, she boasted pridefully, will soon be finished on time and under budget. “There’s no longer this question of impropriety or corruption out of that office,” Hackel said. “And we’re getting things done.” As for Marrocco, he has denied wrongdoing but remains under FBI investigation as part of a bribery scandal in which 15 people have already been charged.
Though polls showed Miller running ahead in a potential race for Michigan governor next year, she endorsed state Attorney General Bill Schuette and appears content where she is. Miller told me that she does occasionally think about where she’d be if she stayed in Congress to help enact the GOP agenda under President Trump. But then she remembered the current reality of Capitol Hill, where House Republicans are constantly “passing bills that go out into the ether somewhere, never to be heard from again.”
It’s much easier for Miller to see the impact she’s having in Macomb, cleaning up an environmental disaster and rebuilding critical infrastructure. “I have so much happening here,” she told me. Miller might not be any busier than the Republican colleagues she left in Congress, but after nine months back in Macomb, she appears to have more to show for it.
Russel Berman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where this article was originally published.