L. Brooks Patterson's Last Hurrah, And Kevin Howley, Who Would Replace Him
Kevin Howley has paid close attention to L. Brooks Patterson's convalescence over the past 11 weeks. That's because Howley is running against Patterson in Tuesday's election for Oakland County Executive, and he's had no one to run against.
Until Tuesday, Patterson had been missing in action for nearly three months, and that seemed strange, because he has been a conservative, belligerent, successful and sometimes humorous public figure in metro Detroit for 40 years.
Patterson, 73 and running for his sixth term, returned to his office in a wheelchair yesterday, looking frail and gaunt and acting emotional. It was his first public appearance since the Aug. 10 auto accident in which he broke his ankles, wrists, hip, leg, several ribs and suffered a gash on his forehead that left a scar.
He gave a handful of telephone interviews over the past few weeks. In the Free Press Oct. 1, Kathleen Gray reported Patterson talked about the transformational nature of coming close to death.
“Now, every conversation always ends with ‘I love you,’” he said.
For the past two decades, Patterson in many ways has served essentially as the mayor of all suburbia. He has supported sprawl, kept taxes low, balanced the budget and defended suburbanites from what he often viewed as Detroit’s rapaciousness, even as Detroit withered into the nation’s poorest big city and Oakland, the beneficiary of much of Detroit’s loss, surged into one of the country’s wealthiest counties.
The emotion is certainly understandable. But such sentiment is a startling contrast to the pugnacious brand Patterson, a Republican, has built during his 40 years in public life, from representing anti-busing activists in the early 1970s to serving as Oakland County’s no-nonsense prosecutor to his 20 years in Oakland County’s top elected position.
“We see ourselves as a target,” Patterson told Ze’ev Chafets for his 1990 book, “Devil’s Night And Other True Tales of Detroit, articulating the view that suburban whites were the victims of racism coming out of black-majority Detroit. Patterson identified the chief villain as Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. “He’s the racist,” said Patterson, who, on the day after Young died in 1997, said Young “was singly responsible for the demise of Detroit,” a point of view shared by no serious student of the city’s decline.
Patterson’s supporters argue he has changed over time, especially as Oakland has grown more diverse and progressive and voted Democratic for presidential and statewide elections. He supported the DIA millage last summer, for example, and is backing a bill in the state legislature for a regional transit authority in metro Detroit. He recently asked that the sponsors of a pro-GOP TV ad that bashed Detroit pull it, and they did.
Still, Kevin Howley argues, politely, that it is time for Patterson to go.
Howley is the Democrat opposing Patterson in Tuesday’s election, and with Patterson recovering from his injuries since the August primary, Howley has had to run against a phantom for the past three months.manifesto that analyzes Oakland County and concludes the “culture of stability” that Patterson promotes about Oakland is out of date.
He argues the Oakland dream was built on a shaky foundation – the auto industry -- and as the industry has retrenched, Oakland’s poverty rates have doubled; median household income has declined substantially; more than 130,00 jobs have been lost over 10 years and population growth has stalled.
Howley argues Patterson has failed to prepare the county for the new reality.
“I’m the only candidate articulating a future for the county,” he said.
Howley, 53, grew up in Farmington Hills, graduated from Kalamazoo College, earned a Harvard MBA and a master’s degree in public polic from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He served for many years as an executive in the computer services, printing and direct marketing industries, and since 2004 has run his own business, offering his business know-how to struggling non-profits. He’s a veteran community activist who has received awards for his volunteer work.
The county Howley describes in his analysis sounds like Detroit about 1960, after a decade of economic change largely caused by retrenchment in the auto industry.
“The county is dotted with empty malls, abandoned developments and vacant homes,” he wrote. ““Oakland’s current orientation, infrastructure and culture do not fit the needs of an evolving community.”
Patterson, Howley said, “sees himself as a protector of the past rather than an enlightened leader of the future, using a management and leadership style long on partisanship and cronyism and short on civic engagement.”
Howley views Patterson as “an island unto himself” who has been unwilling to participate in regional solutions” but more than willing to “bad mouth leaders in the city of Detroit.” Howley also noted Patterson did little to alleviate the financial crisis that has decimated Pontiac, the county seat.
If elected, Howley said he would engage all corners of the county in a strategic planning process that would re-orientate priorities. He would welcome a collaborative approach to governing.
Does Howley have a chance?
After four decades in public life, Patterson has astronomical name recognition.
He even joked about that with reporters Tuesday.
People ask me, ‘Why not get those signs out,’” Patterson said. “For who? Those 2% who don’t know me? I know where they live," he joked.
If elected, it will interesting to watch how Patterson juggles his long-term recovery needs with the time demands and stress of running the county. At 73, and with his injuries, this clearly would seem to be his last election. Will he even be able to serve a full term?
Even if Howley loses this time, his thinking about Oakland would seem to represent the next generation of the county’s political leadership.
"I want to be part of regional solutions," he said.