I spent some time yesterday in Mount Clemens talking with Mark Hackel, who four and a half years ago became the first executive Macomb County has ever had. You’d have a hard time finding anyone as enthusiastic about any county anywhere as Hackel is about Macomb.
He was born there 53 years ago; stayed because he didn’t want to go away to school, and has never lived, or wanted to live, anywhere else.
A Democrat — at least on paper — he was elected sheriff three times, and has been elected county executive twice in massive landslides. Both were in years when his party’s candidate for governor lost the county badly.
Naturally, there’s been a lot of speculation about whether he might be the Democrats’ best hope of taking the statehouse back three years from now. Hackel admits he’s thought about it, but says:
“I’d only do it if I was convinced I could accomplish something.”
“Look at Lansing. The governor’s party controls the legislature, everything, and they can’t even get the voters’ top priority done — the roads,” he said.
Hackel would rather talk about Macomb, which is by far the fastest-growing county in Metropolitan Detroit. For years, Macomb was sort of Detroit’s lunch bucket county. White-collar workers leaving Detroit went to Oakland County on the west; blue-collar ones east to Macomb. First they were Democrats, then Reagan Democrats.
But that has been changing. The county still has a strong ethnic and manufacturing base. While judges tend to have Irish names in Wayne and Oakland Counties, they are apt to have Italian and Polish ones in Macomb. But Macomb is booming and diversifying.
The county has doubled its population in the last half-century, and now has more than 850,000 people. “Fourteen people a day move into Macomb,” Hackel says, beaming with pride.
He is a great booster of the slogan: “Make Macomb your home.” He’s not much of a partisan, but believes in strong government. He says that while Macomb was the last of the big three to move to an executive form of government, Macomb’s executive has much stronger powers. “Nothing goes anywhere except through the executive,” he told me. The commission can only approve or reject county contracts, for example; they can’t amend them. “I understand the need for a legislative body to talk and have dialogue, but the reality is that somebody has to be responsible,” he said.
He knows all about that; he grew up largely in a single-parent home, raised by his dad, who was the sheriff before him. Hackel, who doesn’t appear to have an ounce of fat on him, radiates energy. He’s unhappy if he can’t run a few miles every day, and hates to go on vacation. He also doesn’t have much use for political parties.
He took all the Rs and Ds out of the county directory listing officials; he confesses that while he is staying a Democrat, if it were up to him, county executive would be a nonpartisan position. But if he ever were to become governor, would that make him more or less effective?
That’s hard to say, except that Hackel has been decisively effective in Macomb. And nobody in their right mind would claim that Lansing works very well now.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.