The author, a journalist in Detroit for 45 years, is co-founder of Deadline Detroit.
By Bill McGraw
L. Brooks Patterson has barely been gone for 48 hours, so let’s give the man his due with the positive accomplishments first: Following the death early Saturday of the seven-term Oakland County executive from pancreatic cancer, his friends, media members and associates spent the weekend praising Patterson for his leadership, philanthropy and sense of humor. Old Brooksie was quite a guy, they said.
You can tell Patterson excelled in those areas in part because he left a public record that is almost 50 years long, and it supports those claims. He ran a clean and efficient government for 26 years.
Those same Patterson admirers also were forced to discuss the man’s contentious relationship with Detroit, and fell back on assurances that he was only defending Oakland County all these years. He wasn’t racist, they insisted.
Chief Deputy County Executive Gerald Poisson told The Detroit News that Patterson often provided administrative help to the city and supported some regional measures. “He loved Detroit,” said Poisson, now interim county executive.
Patterson, who was 80, had been in the news since 1970, when he represented anti-busing activists in Pontiac during a long and racially divisive legal case. The leaders later denounced Patterson for using them to advance his political career.
And starting with that moment, the uglier parts of his record are clear.
Over the foul line
Patterson spent nearly five decades denouncing Detroit. He constantly disrespected its first black mayor, Coleman A. Young. He seemed to take as much glee in Detroit’s decline as in Oakland County’s rise. He opposed a number of regional initiatives, especially any form of mass transit that would strengthen transportation ties between the city and suburbs. And he dabbled at times in behavior that crossed the line of racial propriety.
In 1993, for example, Patterson was center stage at a spoof that had characteristics of a minstrel show. He and other white men gathered before a white audience in an Oakland County bar and impersonated Young and mayoral candidate Sharon McPhail in derisive skits.
Commenting on the evening, Free Press columnist Hugh McDiarmid acknowledged the show had raised money for the Salvation Army and contained no outright slurs. He added: “Unintended or otherwise, there was enough racial mischief at work Friday to suggest that a sequel, if one were ever held in Detroit instead of Royal Oak, might ignite a race riot.”
In 1990, Patterson was interviewed by Ze’ev Chafets, the author of “Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit,” just as Patterson’s 16-year run as the Oakland County prosecutor was ending.
Chafets noted Patterson differed from most southeastern Michigan politicians in that he complained specifically about black people.
“I’m color blind,” Patterson told him, explaining his office refused to plea-bargain on serious crimes. “Black defendants don’t like it.”
And it was in “Devil’s Night” that Patterson spelled out his feelings about the city in no uncertain terms. "In no sense are we dependent on Detroit,” he told Chafets. “They are dependent on us. The truth is, Detroit has had its day. I don't give a damn about Detroit. It has no direct bearing on the quality of my life. If I never crossed 8 Mile again I wouldn't be bereft of anything."
Voice of white expats
Like so many suburbanites who sneer at the city, once upon a time Patterson was a Detroiter. He grew up on Glastonbury Street in the prosperous North Rosedale Park neighborhood.
He left in 1968 along with 80,000 other Detroiters that year, part of the decades-long exodus of white residents from the city. By the 1990s southeast Michigan had become one the nation’s most unusual metropolitan regions -- a central city that was 83 percent African American surrounded by suburbs that were overwhelmingly white.
As suburbia flourished and the flight of people and business continued to diminish Detroit, it became common for some white expatriates to criticize the city harshly and poke fun at its leaders, especially Young. Some bragged that they hadn’t ventured downtown in decades. It was a harsh vibe that distinguished metropolitan Detroit from other big metro areas, where city-suburban tensions were rarely as tense.
The record shows Patterson was the leader of the Detroit haters. He spoke their language and stoked their racial grievances. In addition to his repeated criticism of Detroit, he never tired of pointing out how Oakland County had become one of the nation’s wealthiest communities while Detroit struggled to keep the street lights on.
'Drop dead, Detroit'
Patterson’s unseemly gloating did not diminish as the city began its turnaround after 2000. It was highlighted in 2014 when the New Yorker sent a reporter to profile him. He welcomed the attention from a sophisticated magazine read by important people and allowed the reporter extensive access.
The headline on the story read: “Drop Dead, Detroit! The suburban kingpin who is thriving off the city’s decline.”
In the story, reporter Paige Williams recounted the kinds of positive stories about Patterson that his friends shared over the weekend, including examples of his personal kindness and his 26-year county stewardship, which was praised by national experts.
Given Patterson’s excellent record of handling the Oakland’s finances, Williams asked him how Detroit might solve its money problems.
That was a moment when Patterson could have rightfully bragged to readers about his financial wizardry. Instead he fell back on one of his oldest and most offensive jokes about Detroit.
This is how Patterson answered Williams’ question: “I made a prediction a long time ago. And it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and throw in the blankets and corn.’”
A very unusual politician
Do we need more? Do we need to mention Patterson in 2018 joked that he would rather join the Ku Klux Klan than work with a Detroit business group? (He later apologized.) Do we need to mention Patterson in 1993 said there are only two solutions to crime in Detroit: to crack down or “to sit back and let half of Detroit kill the other half and then put the surviving half in prison.” (He said the latter solution was unacceptable.) Do we need to recall that in 2006, during a racially charged discussion about the future of the Detroit Zoo, which is located in Oakland County, Patterson joked about not wanting to “own” a black city councilwoman, Barbara-Rose Collins. She had reminded Patterson that Detroit was not a “plantation” on which black people take orders from whites.
Patterson was a very unusual politician. Most office holders try to project a sense of decorum and avoid reporters. He was the life of the party and courted the media, and in some cases became reporters’ friend. One such media member is Carol Cain, who welcomed Patterson as a regular guest on her “Michigan Matters” television show for the past 14 years.
“I do not believe (as some do) Patterson is a bigot. If I did, you wouldn’t see him on my show,” Cain wrote in her Free Press column in January.
I never covered Patterson on a regular basis and met him only once, so all I know is what his public record shows. When you examine that record, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that major parts of Patterson’s legacy are his racially divisive rhetoric and years of denigration of the blackest big city in America.
And when you examine Patterson’s history, you can’t help but wonder how his supporters can defend his record on race and Detroit with straight faces.