by Christine Fedewa, Vice President of Operations
|This Advisor presents a conversation with Secretary of State Candice Miller, based on an interview conducted on March 23.|
Republican Candice Miller was elected Michigan’s first female secretary of state in November 1994 with support from 54 percent of the voters. Secretary Miller is no stranger to being first: In 1992 she was the first Republican in 46 years to win a countywide office—Macomb County treasurer; she was the youngest and first female elected supervisor in Harrison Township; in 1979 she was the first Republican in 29 years to win election as Harrison Township trustee; and, on a more personal note, she was a member of the first all female crew in the Chicago to Mackinac and Port Huron to Mackinac yacht races. Miller, 41, graduated from Lake Shore High School and attended Macomb County Community College and Northwood Institute. She is married to Col. Donald Miller and the mother of Wendy, age 19.
Q. Fedewa: In looking over your resume, I noticed a lot of “firsts.” How does it feel to be Michigan’s first female secretary of state?
A. Miller: Great. It feels great. You know, I didn’t realize that until after the election, when the governor said, “You know, you’re the first female secretary of state.” I hadn’t thought about it during the campaign. He also pointed out that I was “the first female to be elected independently to a partisan office in the state.”
My party had asked me about running for state representative or state senator, and although I think that is fine for other people, that’s really not me. I’m an administrator; this is what I do and I think I do it well. I like to think that I’m a very progressive, proactive administrator. I had been a township supervisor in one of Michigan’s larger townships for a number of years and then county treasurer, and when I thought about seeking another office, I looked at the secretary of state and thought there was a lot of opportunity here. I’m very happy to have won election, and I appreciate the opportunity that the citizens have given me. I really want to do a good job, and I think I can.
Q. What do you like most about the job?
A. That I have inherited a very good department. There is really nothing wrong with this department. Mr. Austin was one of the finer public servants that we have ever had. But it’s like buying a new house; you want to put your own coat of paint on it and personalize it. My view on life, and the way that I intend to approach this office, is that the largest room is always the room for improvement.
There is a lot of room for improvement in the secretary of state’s office, and I look at that as an opportunity. We all set personal challenges for ourselves, and I hope that at the end of four years I’m going to be able to say what we did to improve customer service and its delivery at branch offices. What my management team and I have done in our first months is try to get ourselves acclimated to how the department has worked for the last number years as quickly as we can. It is a large department; there are more than 2,100 employees, 181 branch offices, and this year’s budget is $147 million.
I have a very full plate with an aggressive agenda for some customer service initiatives—that’s really where we’re going. To give you some specifics: We hope to propose shortly vehicle registration renewal by fax machine. We also have put together sort of a strike team. I think the best way to approach a new initiative is to identify people within the organization who really have an interest in it and special talent and then assign it to them.
Another project we hope to pilot this year is touch-tone vehicle registration so that, if you have a touch-tone phone, you can renew your registration or obtain your certificate of title from your home or from your office. That needs to be our goal—to negate the necessity for individuals to walk in and have face-to-face contact for these simple transactions.
Q. Will this reduce some costs over time?
A. In the long term it will. We’re putting together a business plan along with our budget for the next year. I want to have a plan in place for my four-year term. There may be some initial up-front costs, but we’ll be able to recoup them very quickly and show where, within a three-year period, there will actually be less cost and yet the public is well served. That is our business.
We are looking at some of the things already in place but not working very well. The renewal-by-mail program, for instance, is used by less than 20 percent of the people. I was stunned. It was interesting to me to learn that in any branch office on any day of the week, 50 percent of the people are standing in line because they did not renew by mail. You can’t say it’s all their fault; everybody there can’t be a procrastinator. But I think it’s incumbent on the Department of State to make sure people are reminded that this is something available to them. So we have directed our communications division to design a comprehensive marketing plan to remind people how easy this is. I think those three things alone will have a dramatic impact on eliminating some of the lines.
We’re also looking at a comprehensive operational audit of branch offices, asking if where they are is the best place for them, what is the population they are serving, what kind of staff do they have, what kinds of transactions are they actually processing? For instance, you might go into one branch and find that most of the business they do is with a string of auto dealers that happen to be on the main strip there. The auto dealers have to do the same thing that you and I do. So if you’re an Oldsmobile dealer and you walk in with 50 transactions every day, somebody is standing in line while you’re doing this.
In fact, 20 percent of the business annually transacted with the Department of State comes from the auto dealers—the larger fleets like UPS, Avis, Hertz, that kind of thing. So we’ve already had meetings with the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and Michigan Auto Dealers Association and hope to pilot a program this year in which some auto dealers can transact business electronically. They are, as you might imagine, incredibly enthusiastic about this.
I think it’s a matter of a fresh perspective on customer service and its delivery in Michigan. A lot of the things I talk about seem simple because they have been done in many other states. And, generally, the staff is extremely receptive to these kinds of things. I have been trying to get out and visit the branches. This week I visited West Bloomfield and Rochester, which is the second busiest one in the state. I talked to the staff and the branch managers. They don’t take any pleasure in standing behind those counters and having people come up to them very angry every day. You can imagine the stress level. Everybody wants to be able to work in a decent environment, and some of the environments in these branch offices are not very pleasant.
Q. Do they worry at all about job loss?
A. I think there’s some concern about that. Some people may think that as a Republican or conservative I’m going to go in there with a sledgehammer and start eliminating jobs. What I try to tell people is that, first of all, I’m a fiscal conservative from a union neighborhood in Macomb County where everybody’s parent was a member of the UAW. So I don’t view the UAW or unions as adversaries. At the same time, I understand the public’s concern about customer delivery and want to make the employees’ work environment easier. If the things I am doing take so much work out of the branch offices that a work force reduction is necessary, it certainly would be my idea that it would be done through normal attrition.
Q. Some articles I’ve read paint you as someone who might be more comfortable in a more political role, yet you say that, while politics is nice, you really prefer the administrative side of governing.
A. That’s what my track record has been. But people have also said that “you’re a partisan,” and I will tell you, yes, I am partisan. I’m not a closet Republican. I ran for statewide office as a Republican [laughter]. I think the question is, can I keep partisan politics out of the Elections Division? I honestly believe I can.
For instance, we’ve recently taken action against some seated state legislators who have not filed a state campaign finance report for some number of years. We’re taking them through an administrative action where the previous administration never did. Because they happen to be Democrats, they said, “This is a partisan action.” Well, the computer is not looking to see whether someone is a Republican or Democrat; it only kicks out people who have not filed their campaign reports.
I believe that disclosure is the operative phrase in campaign finance. I have to file my campaign reports in a timely fashion, and I think everybody should be expected to do the same. I don’t know what the big question is about that. Just file it, and if you don’t, you’re going to get fined. We’ll garnishee your wages or whatever it takes.
We’ve come out very aggressively on that for a particular reason: I’m interested in customer service. I don’t want to spend the next four years chasing people for campaign finance reports. We sent the message out very quickly that everybody is expected to comply with the law or we will take the strongest sanctions against them. I think this will eliminate a big part of that problem very early on.
Q. Having also been a local government official, do you think that the same limitations on campaign contributions to state candidates should apply to local elected officials?
A. Yes. I can remember as a county treasurer one fellow saying to me, “How much can I contribute; what’s the limit?” I said, “There isn’t any limit,” and he laughed. He said, “You mean if I want to give you a million dollars, I can give you a million dollars?” I said, “Yes, there are no restrictions.” If you look at the kind of contracts that are let and where they’re being let from, and the problems that we have had, why in the world don’t local officials have to have the same kind of restrictions as a state representative or the governor or member of Congress. When you go to other states and tell them that this is the system in Michigan, they are startled.
Q. What are the personal qualities and skills that account for your successes in life?
A. I like to think of myself as progressive and tenacious. I come from a business background, although I’ve been in politics now for as long as I can remember. My family has been in the marina business; I’ve worked in that business, doing the bookkeeping and all kinds of other things. I understand how to make a payroll and how difficult it is for people to do that. I think you need to set yourself a plan and make sure it’s realistic, but don’t be afraid to be aggressive about it either. That’s probably the best thing about me and also the worst thing about me [laughter]. I do have a tendency to see the wall and want to run right through it. As I get older, I’m maturing and understanding better how to get around the wall [laughter].
In politics, if you do not produce, the bosses [voters] are going to let you go, pink slip you, as they should. Sometimes people in elected office have a tendency to think the electorate really doesn’t understand everything that’s going on. They don’t always understand all the nuances of it, but they have a much better grasp than we think they do of whether or not elected officials are performing; I don’t think you can underestimate the voters. People say it’s the worst system in the world until you look anywhere else, and then it’s absolutely the best.
I think I have the ability to bring people together, to work together. I brought in some new players here. I mentioned to you I have 2,100 employees, all of whom were here under Mr. Austin, and it’s up to me to make sure they understand they are a member of the team and that we want to go forward. As I’ve been around to visit the individual branches, I learned that people had not had a visit from the secretary of state in a long time, in some cases ever. As I started visiting them, the employees all seemed to be stunned. You’re asking them: What do you think? What do you mean you don’t have a fax machine? There are no fax machines in branch offices. No copy machines. You cannot sit in this office and understand what’s happening in the Rochester Road branch office. You have to go there.
I like to think of myself as a hands-on administrator, and I try to make sure that I’m not micromanaging things. I want to stay away from that. I like to have good people around me and then let them do their job. On the other hand, I think that the only way you can offer viable solutions is to get out there and see exactly what’s happening. I walk around and talk to people. It gives me a sense of how to drive the agenda.
Q. What else can you tell me about working in the marina business?
A. I thought that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I have an older brother, and my mother sometimes will call and say, “What are you doing? What do you mean you’re the secretary of state? You better go to work with your brother” [laughter]. I do have a real interest in politics, and my family has been very supportive.
Q. How did you get interested in politics?
A. The Harrison Township Board was in the public hearing stage of enacting an ordinance. The ordinance was going to levy a tax on marinas for boatwells. And in Harrison Township, which is right on the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair, the larger percentage of the commercial tax base is marina oriented. I told my dad this was ridiculous, and he said, “Yeah, this is terrible, we need to do something.”
But we didn’t know what to do; there was no cohesive group or business association. So I started walking around to the different marinas and talking to fellows there, and I said, “You know, we’ve got to get together on this, it’s bad, it’s long term, it’s discriminatory. You know, taxation without representation.” I was about 23 years old. And they all sort of patted me on the head and said, “Yeah, okay Candice, figure something out would you?”
So we started a petition drive, and then went down to the township board. When we got there, I was sort of their spokesperson. Actually, we were successful in getting the government to rescind the ordinance. We started talking about recalling them and making all these threats.
I really didn’t know anything about politics, but I had a very quick experience there and found it very interesting, especially when we won. And so I decided to run for office. In fact, one of the trustees, who was the son of one of the other marina owners down the street, said, “You know, why don’t you just run for office and then I won’t have to listen to you complain anymore. You think you know what you’re doing.” So I said, “Okay, I will,” and I did, and I really enjoyed it.
Q. Are there any individuals who had a major influence on your goals and beliefs?
A. think my parents and my grandmother, who is now deceased. My grandmother was a very dynamic woman. She was a school teacher and sort of a very dominant personality. She pushed me from a very early age, told me women can do anything and you can do anything. I will always remember her telling me, “You are going to go through your entire life, and people are going to tell you: ‘You are too young, you are too old, you are too something,’ and don’t pay any attention. If you think you can do it, then just go ahead.” I just loved her. A lot of women did not like her because she was so pushy, but I loved her and I thought she was great.
Obviously, I had the very fortunate circumstances of having a very strong family unit, and this gives you self-confidence, of course. I came right out of the Ozzie and Harriet type home; that’s what my family’s like. My father worked every day, and my mother stayed home with the kids, so I am the fortunate beneficiary of that. They’ve always been there, and I know that they will always be there. My husband is a very dynamic individual in his own right and is not threatened by my doing all these things. He gets a big kick out of it, in fact. He’s my best friend, and we have a 19-year-old daughter, and this is obviously something that her mother has always done. She knows that every couple of years she has to get all of her friends together for a pizza party to put labels on election mailings.
Q. You strike me as a person with a great deal of confidence. Do you have any fears or challenges you have to work at overcoming?
A. I don’t know if it’s really that. I try to set realistic goals for myself and accomplish those goals. I’m very much a goal-oriented kind of person and like to see tangible results. The biggest adjustment for me as a new secretary of state has been dealing with the media. I have not been used to, and I was totally unprepared—my mistake—for the intense media scrutiny that I have received. But I think I’m a quick study, and I intend to have a professional relationship with the press. I hope they treat me fairly and criticize me fairly, as I think the public will as well. I walked into one of my branch offices in Kalamazoo and there were three reporters from television stations there; I was just not ready for that. But I’m getting there, and I think that the public was ready for a change in this office.
Obviously, I’m very much an unknown to them so far, and I want to make sure the public feels comfortable with me. I’m certainly not asking that they agree with everything that I do; that would be impossible—I wouldn’t even want them to—but I hope that they feel they have someone who is competent in place here, and I want to demonstrate that to them. I think that’s my challenge for the next four years.
Q. What are your future career goals?
A. This position has a term limit of eight years. I’d like to seek reelection in four years, and I don’t have a vision beyond that. Sometimes life has a way of taking us on its own road.
Q. What are your future personal goals?
A. To try to spend as much time with my family as possible. My family did not move from our home in Harrison Township. I have an apartment here, and commute on weekends. I’m trying to spend about one and a half work days in southeast Michigan. My family always comes first. My leisure time is so limited, and I haven’t sailed as much as I’d like to in the last couple of years. That’s a great physical and mental challenge for me.