Politics & Prejudices
Bye-bye time for Brooks?
Could Oakland County's Patterson be on the way out?
Published: October 17, 2012
Forty years ago, Oakland County voters elected L. Brooks Patterson their new prosecutor. He was brash, swaggering and highly quotable. The year before, he had latched on to an anti-busing activist named Irene McCabe, and rode her to prominence.
Though he would soon drop her cause like a used gum wrapper, Brooks realized bashing Detroit — especially Mayor Coleman Young — was a ticket to success.
Some years ago, I happened across a Detroit Free Press from September 1975. Sure enough, there was a quote from Brooks saying that he thought the government should fence off Detroit, treat it like an Indian reservation, and bring the inhabitants blankets and food.
Times have changed. Seven presidents have come and gone, the Cold War is over, Coleman Young is long dead, the Internet has replaced the IBM Selectric, and Oakland County is far more diverse.
Yet Brooks Patterson is still there. When he arrived, he was in his early 30s; he is now 73. Once tough and wiry, he is now fat and puffy, and his battles with booze are legendary. Twenty years ago, after giving up the prosecutor's office, he got elected county executive.
Earlier, badly thought-out attempts to run for governor, senator and attorney general left Brooks with three defeats in four years, and ensured he'd never rise above Oakland County.
But he made the most of it. When his current term ends in January, he will have been county executive exactly as long as his ancient enemy, Coleman Alexander Young, was mayor of Detroit.
Yet while Young probably stayed too long, he had the good sense and the bad lungs to retire after two decades. Patterson, on the other hand, wants at least one more four-year term.
Oakland County has changed dramatically since Brooks first thundered out of Pontiac. The population, which quadrupled in the boom years after World War II, has leveled off at 1.2 million.
It has also become more diverse, with African-Americans in the majority in Pontiac and Southfield, and a steadily growing Asian population everywhere. Though it was once one of the most reliably Republican counties in the state, Oakland hasn't voted Republican for president since 1992.
That's partly because the party has changed. Affluent Oakland County voters, especially women, are no longer comfortable with the hard-right, women-demeaning social-issue stand of the national GOP. But they still vote for Brooks.
He has been re-elected overwhelmingly, every time. Sure, he is occasionally embarrassing, and comes across more like an old-time political boss than a modern high-tech executive. But they feel that Patterson has kept the county solvent, and on the path to economic growth.
But that's what business turnaround expert Kevin Howley calls "the great Oakland County success myth." True, the county budget is still balanced, and services seem to work reasonably well.
However, Howley has an array of statistics that show things aren't what they seem. That, in fact, the decline started long before the so-called Great Recession; and that "unlike other regions of the country," prospects for property values recovering "do not look good."
Which is why Kevin Howley put his career on hold and decided to run against L. Brooks Patterson.
Everybody told him there was no way he could win. But Howley, who grew up in the '60s and '70s in what was then mostly rural Farmington Hills, felt he owed it to his home turf, which he could see was rotting behind a PR-spun facade. Patterson, he concedes, "has done a masterful job spinning his accomplishments," mainly by comparing his kingdom to Detroit's current wretched circumstances.
"Is that really the standard by which Oakland residents want to set their expectations," asks Howley, who has lived and worked across the nation. "You know, this region is the only one in the country without regional transportation.
"You have to question why there is such a lack of vision," he says. Indeed, last year, he happened on a series of online cartoon animations by Free Press cartoonist Mike Thompson, "Quiet Desperation in Oakland County," showing that the Great Recession had indeed ravaged the place.
Howley, who moved back to Michigan in 2004, knew that it was even worse than the cartoons indicated. "Oakland County experienced job losses every year from 2000 to 2007 except one."
The population is aging, property values don't look like they're coming back any time soon, and Brooks' proud strategy of sprawl, sprawl and more sprawl is, Howley believes, not what young professionals want.
"Among all generations, there is a higher demand for community space like coffee shops or common areas like a village square" he says. "People are looking for 'place' rather than 'space.'"
Howley, who has never run for office before, didn't have to fight for the Democratic nomination; nobody else wanted it very much. But it would be hard to imagine, let alone find, someone better qualified.
What he is all about is community-based strategic planning. He knows his stuff: After graduating from Kalamazoo College, he earned an MBA and then a master's in public policy from Harvard.
> Email Jack Lessenberry