L. Brooks Patterson always said the L stood for lonely. It actually stood for Lewis, but the 80-year-old may as well have been speaking of his legacy. The long-time Oakland County executive died two days ago, and pundits are already feasting on his remains.
One camp says that Old Lonely was an inveterate racist, little more than a modern-day George Wallace wheeling around north of Eight Mile, denigrating the blackest big city in America.
The other camp, north of the border, praises his leadership, his fiscal acumen, his biting humor, insisting that Old Lonely really truly did love Detroit.
It is a shallow enterprise about a complicated man. Neither is true. Nor false.
After taking an avalanche of criticism, Patterson first complained that he didn't say it. Then after realizing he'd been caught on tape, he apologized to Native Americans -- but not to Detroiters.
Trashed Duggan and Ficano
More recently, Patterson told me that Mike Duggan, the mayor of Detroit, was a creep and a dick, always on the muscle for an illegitimate dollar. He denied that one, too. I forgive you, Lonely.
He once suggested that scandal-plagued Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano lock himself in his garage with a nice bottle of cabernet and start the motor. At least he said that one with Ficano sitting next to him.
He was self-deprecating, always had a quotable line. He once dressed in a mullet and sang karaoke with me and my brothers. He posed as Wayne County machine boss Ed McNamara, back from the dead.
But here's where it's at: “Detroit has had its day,” he said in the late '80s. “I don't give a damn about Detroit.”
The hard drinking? That part, too, was true. Back in 2000, after attending the boozy wake of a friend, Patterson abandoned his Cadillac, which he'd beached on some railroad tracks. Patterson ran back and hid in his executive suite, he later confided to me, off the record. An employee took the fall.
“When they complain about my habits,” he said, “I say, good thing I don't have my finger on the nuclear button.”
But when it came to management, Patterson leaves one of the most successful governments in the state of Michigan, if not the country. Oakland County has had a AAA bond rating for nearly three decades, $420 million in cash reserves, no looming fiscal doom over public pensions, low crime, decent infrastructure.
People voted with their feet and their earnings.
Oakland County is now 14 percent African-American, people having jumped the Eight Mile wall that Patterson helped construct. And while nearly every major seat in the county has swung to Democratic control, Old Brooksy was elected in 2016 to a seventh term.
No fiscal hocus pocus
Never was there a grand jury looking into L Brooks Patterson (that I know of). Nor reports of deleted emails concerning a girlfriend getting government funding support. No fiscal hocus pocus. And the crack about preferring to join the KKK rather than the group of 23 business tycoons in a regional super-delegation of development? “Poor choice of words,” he told me over a drink.
“But those people have interest only in enriching themselves. Ironically, half of them live here in Oakland County with me.”
So now, the pop-up historians paste Patterson as a crank, a racist and a doddering old fool. And maybe he was. Either way: “That's how it goes when you donate your life to the public's behalf," he said just a few months before his death.
In a very real way, Patterson and the battle for his place in history reminds of that of his alter ego, Coleman A. Young, the first black mayor of Detroit.
Young balanced the city's books even as industry and white people beat it across the Eight Mile moat into Patterson's Oakland County. Young built the Joe Louis Arena, the Renaissance Center and the General Motors plant. Coleman Young integrated the Detroit Police Department.
But Young is remembered, among his many detractors, for the South African Krugerrand scandal, the private jet, and his infamous “Hit Eight Mile” crack. Young, his critics incorrectly state, is solely responsible for the demise of the Motor City.
About the only thing left of Young's legacy is his name on the city hall building, and a little red book of his most outrageous quotations.
And now comes Patterson's turn.
Patterson may not have been a leader of people, but he was a model of competence.
That's saying something when you're talking about politics in Michigan.