Macomb County Executive Hackel Makes His Mark

As county executive, Mark Hackel is dedicated to giving ‘third-place’ Macomb a place at the table beside Wayne and Oakland. And the ex-sheriff is constantly striving for a badge of honor, personally and for his jurisdiction.
Photographs by David Lewinski

For decades, media coverage and conversations on metro Detroit issues have always named our counties in this order: Wayne, Oakland, Macomb — ranked by population. Internalizing that ranking over the years may have given Macomb denizens a bit of a runner-up mentality.

Then, in 2010, voters elected their sheriff, Mark Hackel, as the county’s first-ever executive — a role created through Macomb’s newly adopted charter. In his first year, the former law-enforcement boss trimmed the county budget, shuttered departments, and discussed consolidating services, resulting in a modest year-end budget surplus. And as the Big Three domestic automakers regained their health, economic prospects rose for the heavily manufacturing-based county. Macomb also now has a seat at the table of the other “Big Three.” Along with a seemingly tamer L. Brooks Patterson and an embattled Robert Ficano (who’s in a fight to maintain his name and political future), Hackel — and Macomb — are sharing a larger part of the spotlight.

Hackel doesn’t cast the same towering shadow of authority as his father, who served as Macomb’s sheriff from 1977 until 2000. Rather, the former wrestler with telegenic looks and carefully parted salt-and-pepper hair fills a compact, sturdy frame. His deep-set, dark eyes add intensity to his words, while the laugh lines on the 49-year-old’s cheekbones indicate a happy life.

Dressed in jeans, a white shirt open at the collar, and a khaki corduroy blazer, Hackel cruises along Groesbeck Highway on a late-December weekday. As he speaks, his words outpace the customized black Dodge Charger he pilots. (The car, with 141,000 miles on the odometer, is a holdover from his days as sheriff.)

“I never really looked at myself as the county sheriff in a marketing role,” Hackel says. “But I did that, and I did it on a regular basis. Every minute of the day, on or off duty, I was always talking about and trying to get people comfortable with that product — public safety.”

To the uninitiated, Hackel’s motor-mouth delivery can seem like an attempt to commandeer the conversation. Perhaps it’s a style he picked up while teaching “Verbal Judo,” a tactical-communication training course designed to influence potentially hostile situations through words. After some time, though, it becomes clear that Hackel is just full of energy. Walk in on him during a meeting in his first-floor office of the county’s Department of Roads building and you’ll likely find him teasing and telling stories, his staff in stitches. “In the office, I’m always joking around or just throwing a ball around,” Hackel says. “I’m high-energy, but not high-strung.”

Sgt. Jason Abro, who worked under Hackel for most of his tenure as sheriff, says of his former boss’ stamina: “There were times when I was on the midnight shift, and you would see his office light on at 2 in the morning.

“Sometimes I wonder if he ever sleeps.” Hackel still considers his decade as sheriff to be the best job he’s ever had. “We were very recognized as a policing agency because of the things we did,” he says. “And I was always working with the media, because I realized that was our conduit to the public.” Hackel was the face of the department during the grisly case of Stephen Grant, who murdered his wife and scattered her remains at Stony Creek Metropark. The case made national headlines, and earned Hackel an appearance on the Nancy Grace show. At times, the sheriff was criticized for appearing in the media too often. But those criticisms stick less these days, now that a significant part of his job is to understand, brand, and market Macomb County.

Promoting Macomb County

Hackel turns down the car radio as he shifts into the big sell.

“Nobody really looked at Macomb County as a recognizable product before,” he says. “Now, it’s my responsibility to promote the heck out of it and talk about the assets that we have.” Those assets include, he says, an educated and experienced workforce, a growing defense corridor anchored by Selfridge Air Base, Lake St. Clair’s 31-mile-long shoreline, Macomb Community College, and an increasing population.

The newly restructured county government — which traded 26 commissioners for 13, plus an executive — has spent much of its first year reorganizing and working out the balance of power under the new charter. It hasn’t always been easy. Hackel has tussled with the board more than once over items such as adopting an ethics policy (which he originally vetoed, citing implicit violations of the charter) and the issue of board review of contracts that the executive awards. Negotiations between Hackel and the commissioners have been tense at times, with both sides taking jabs at one another in the media. But that’s all part of the process, says Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Kathy Vosburg. “Those are just the normal growing pains of working with a new charter,” she says. A Chesterfield Township Republican, Vosburg didn’t support the charter measure when it appeared on the ballot in 2008, and has publicly criticized Hackel for some of his interpretations of it. “There are parts of the charter that I don’t think are spelled out clear enough to make it easy for the two offices to know the direction and the authority of each of the two branches,” she says. “On the other hand, there are some parts that I think are very clear that the Office of the Executive doesn’t agree with.”

Bill Ballenger, political analyst and publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, says these types of issues are par for the course for any new government. “There are always problems between the executive and a board of commissioners,” Ballenger says. “From what I’ve seen, Hackel’s been pretty good in terms of trying to be relatively non-partisan about it, or bi-partisan.”

Hackel, a fiscally conservative Democrat, has never played well on party lines. He bristles at the thought that people might consider him a “typical politician.” Instead, he prefers to identify himself as a public servant. “I don’t conform well to partisan politics. I don’t conform well to political interests. I conform to what my role and responsibility is — to the job,” he says.

And the job is one that he’s tailoring for himself. In December, Hackel delivered his first State of the County address to an invitation-only packed house at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. The event opened with a dramatic promotional video showing off some of the county’s manufacturing and outdoor assets. Styled after Chrysler’s popular Super Bowl spot, the video ends with Hackel looking directly into the camera, soberly delivering the final line: “What we’re building is momentum.” After the clip, Hackel outlined his vision for the county in a speech delivered from the front of the stage, Steve Jobs style, instead of behind a lectern like a “typical politician.” Capping the night, another promotional video invited viewers to “Make Macomb Your Home.” The next day’s headline in the Macomb Daily read: “‘Rock star’ Hackel sets the pace.”

“I wasn’t trying to be a rock star, or was I taking a risk, in my opinion,” Hackel says. “My thing is that I just wanted to do it my way, trying to figure out what is my style.”

That style is one of constant activity. Most mornings begin at 6 with a trip to the gym. The rest of the agenda could include any number of community and media events, meetings with local leaders, and trips to Lansing or Detroit.

But it’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s now, and Hackel is driving the route he used to take to and from work, when he lived in Warren and his father was boss.

He pulls into the driveway of his childhood home, surrounded by similar tract houses. Hackel spent nearly 40 years in the 1,100-square-foot ranch before trading it for an extra 1,000 square feet and some separation between neighbors in a newer Macomb Township subdivision. Here, though, the neighbors closer. “As kids growing up, they had seven girls next door, so the odds were good,” he says with a smirk, before dropping in to see Val Szymanski, the girls’ mother.

“You’re looking more and more like your dad,” she tells him.

The Making of a Sheriff

On May 15, 1962, 19-year-old department-store stock boy William “Bill” and Jean Hackel welcomed their second son, Mark Allen, into the world. Marking the beginning of National Police Week, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed it the first-ever National Peace Officers Memorial Day — a fitting birthdate for a future sheriff.

When Mark was 3, his father took a job with the sheriff’s department, moving his family from Center Line to a modest, brand-new brick ranch in Warren. The middle Hackel boy was an academically unexceptional student, but never missed a day of school. Signs of an entrepreneurial streak emerged early. As a teenager, Hackel fished golf balls out of the Red Run Drain to sell to nearby golfers and literally ran a newspaper route on weekends.

His parents divorced when Mark was 11. (Hackel himself was married briefly in his 20s. The union lasted only eight months.) His mother moved to California, leaving her three boys in the custody of their father. Bill remarried two years later, but remained involved with his children despite the additional responsibilities that came with being sheriff. While sports and outdoor activities taught Mark about being a team player, his father’s lifestyle introduced the young man to life in the public eye.

“He was always taking us to events and functions,” Hackel says. “Everywhere we went, people would recognize him, and he’d introduce me. So it’s been part of my life since I was a kid.”

But he never planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, he says. Out of high school and in search of a job, he applied for a dispatch position in the sheriff’s department. To avoid suspicions of nepotism, he kept the application a secret from his father. Doubts remained, but the young man quickly proved his mettle with a gunslinger’s accuracy and exemplary test scores.

“I was No. 1 in the academy class,” Hackel says. “They knew my dad wasn’t sitting there taking the test. They knew my dad wasn’t shooting the gun. They knew my dad wasn’t driving the car.”

“To me, the most interesting thing about Mark Hackel is that if it hadn’t been for his father’s difficulty, he never would have seemingly had his chance in politics,” Ballenger says.

A man beloved by the community he served, the seemingly untouchable elder Hackel was brought down by a sex scandal that abruptly halted a respected career behind the badge. In April 2000, a jury convicted him on two counts of third-degree rape stemming from a hotel-room encounter with a 25-year-old woman at Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant. (He was released from prison in 2005 and turned 70 last year.) Faced with the threat of his family’s legacy becoming a footnote in history — punctuated by a conclusive, shameful period — Mark ran for and won the office vacated by his father.

But Hackel says he wasn’t out to prove anything. “I wasn’t going to run. I was going to move on to another career. Yet, I thought about it. It’s what I like. I have a passion for it. I love it,” he says. “Many people thought I was going to run anyways, that I was going to be ‘groomed’ to be sheriff. I thought that was something you only did to a dog. Being groomed to be the sheriff wasn’t something I’d ever wanted, thought about, had an interest in, or whatever.”

When the numbers came in on election night, there was a clear winner in Macomb County and a new sheriff in town. And the lettering on the office door needed only slight modification.

“I think it was an emotional reaction from the public about what happened to my father,” Hackel says of the win. “Because most of them may agree that it was an indiscretion, but I don’t think many people believed that he would have done that in a criminal nature and would have forced something like that on somebody.”

Although Hackel has his own opinions of his father’s case, he learned a valuable lesson: that even personal actions affect the public. “Every decision I make … impacts other people’s lives, and not just because I’m going to cut the budget or something,” he says. “Those moral, ethical decisions that I make are going to impact people emotionally, as well.”

Keeping His Nose Clean

Perhaps that’s why Hackel was so resolute when he vetoed an ethics ordinance he thought was unclear (“I don’t think any public official should solicit money from any public employee. That’s how it should be worded.”), or why he doesn’t touch alcohol (“If I decide to drink and drive on my own time, emotionally that’s going to impact not just me, but my family, my friends, people you don’t even know.”), or why he pays for his own cell phone and drives the car he was given in his last position (“I don’t want to get caught up in any public criticism.”).

Hackel takes pride in surrounding himself with the right people to help him make the right decisions, from top administrators on his staff to personal and professional acquaintances he respects. He ran for sheriff, he says, only because trusted confidants showed their support.

The chance to run for county executive was a similar situation. Barbara Rossmann, CEO of Henry Ford Macomb Hospitals, was one of the “good people” Hackel went to for insight then. “He’s a very inclusive kind of person. He likes to get a sense of perspective from different people,” Rossmann says. “It’s not about what’s in it for Mark. He pushes for what’s good for the county and the residents ahead of himself.”

Hackel says his hope, when and if he ever leaves public service, is for people to say he wasn’t typical. “I want to try to get people to think differently about politicians. That they’re not all corrupt out there,” he says. How does he plan to do that? By listening, and consistently delivering. “If you lose your integrity, you can’t get that back. So whatever I do, I want to make sure people know that this is my style. This is who I am.”

Twelve years ago, after his father’s conviction, few could have predicted that a Hackel would remain at the forefront of Macomb politics. But, along with older brother William Hackel III, a New Baltimore district court judge, the family legacy lives on. “The guy has turned out to be extremely effective and popular,” Ballenger says, “both as a politician and as an office holder.”

It’s nearly 10 p.m. now as Hackel steers the black Charger north on Van Dyke, toward the Macomb Township home he bought shortly after becoming sheriff. It’s a government holiday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), but he’s spent it making public appearances at community events. “There’s no such thing as days off,” Hackel says as he turns onto Chief Drive, where his almost spartan, 2,000-square-foot ranch awaits in the darkness. Home — a concept he wants more people to associate with Macomb County.

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