Election shows how politics are changing in southeast Mich.


ROYAL OAK, Mich. — No other county in the nation may be as strongly identified with one man as Oakland County, Michigan, is with L. Brooks Patterson, who has dominated the political landscape there since 1972.

First as prosecutor, then as county executive, Mr. Patterson has become a legend. He's the county's Mr. Republican, and an unapologetic advocate of growth and urban sprawl.

His distinctive, gravelly voice, battles with the bottle, and legendary, often off-color, and occasionally off-key sense of humor long have been part of the local landscape.

Yet since he burst on the scene as the fiery young lawyer for a group of anti-school-busing activists, his county has changed.

Oakland County’s population more than tripled in the half-century after World War II, rising from 396,000 to 1.2 million. But growth has slowed. Politically, the county has gradually changed as well.

In the 1980s, national reporters began beating a path to adjacent Macomb County, home of the legendary Reagan Democrats who, disenchanted with liberals, had begun voting Republican.

But an opposite change began occurring in largely white-collar Oakland County in the 1990s. Many affluent, educated voters, especially women, could no longer stomach the hard-right stand on social issues adopted by the national GOP.

This had long been one of the nation's reliably Republican big suburban counties. But not any longer: Oakland County hasn't voted Republican for president since 1992. And though Mitt Romney grew up here, polls show he doesn‘t have much chance of reversing that trend.

But Oakland County still keeps voting for the man most people here call “Brooks.” Much of the time, he has had only token opposition. Four years ago, even as President Obama was sweeping the county, Mr. Patterson won with 58 percent of the ballots cast.

The once tough and wiry young prosecutor is now 73, puffy, and not exactly physically fit. He is not able to campaign much; in August, he broke both wrists and a leg and sustained head and other injuries in a car accident in which he wasn't wearing a seat belt.

When his term expires in January, he will have been county executive for as long as his ancient enemy, Democrat Coleman Young, was mayor of Detroit. But while the mayor retired after 20 years, Mr. Patterson wants at least one more four-year term.

This time, he has a Democratic opponent who says re-electing Mr. Patterson would be a serious mistake.

“The myth of Oakland County prosperity is just that — a myth,” said Kevin Howley, a 53-year-old business turnaround specialist. He moved back to Oakland County in 2004 after working for 17 years for companies in a variety of states.

His chances of beating Mr. Patterson are probably of the extreme long-shot variety. But he has formidable credentials: After graduating from Kalamazoo College, he earned an MBA and a master's degree in public policy and international trade, both from Harvard University.

Last December, a report on “quiet desperation” in Oakland County prompted him to do some research.

“Yes, Oakland County balances its budget, and yes, the county is better off than Detroit,” Mr. Howley said over coffee. “But is that really the best we can do?”

Mr. Howley said what he learned about Oakland County's economy prompted him to seek and win the Democratic Party's nomination to run for county executive.

Even more than most other places in Michigan, he concludes, “the Oakland County dream was built on a narrow foundation — an auto industry that was not sustainable. Oakland County leaders have consistently failed to prepare for this shift in economic reality.”

His numbers make sobering reading. Oakland County lost jobs in seven of the eight years before the Great Recession began.

Its population is aging, and only a small fraction of the 175,000 jobs the county lost in the last decade are likely to come back, he said. “The Patterson administration does not seem to understand, or refuses to acknowledge, the scope of the problem,” Mr. Howley added.

Oakland's problems may well get worse before they get better. What Mr. Howley thinks is needed is a vision — some form of ground-up, strategic urban planning. He doesn't think younger people are enamored of urban sprawl and giant, semirural homes far from any city center.

“Times have changed," Mr. Howley said. “Among all generations there is a higher demand for community space like coffee shops or common areas like a village square.” He added that people increasingly are looking for “place, not space.”

He is one of those people. He and his partner have two adopted young children — a boy from Ghana and a girl from Central America, both of whom attend public schools. When he isn't campaigning, he tries to be a devoted volleyball dad.

Trying to run against the legend has been difficult, Mr. Howley said, especially because Mr. Patterson's accident allowed him to decline to debate.

The presidential and other races have sucked up most of the publicity. The Democratic Party has put some money into his race, and sources say the Howley campaign might end up spending as much as $500,000. But it is hard to find anyone who thinks it is even possible that Mr. Patterson might lose.

Still, four years ago, virtually no one thought Republican Cliff Taylor, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, could lose either. But he lost in a landslide.

Mr. Howley said: “I'm in this thing to win, but these issues aren't going away, regardless of what happens.”

When you look at his data and conclusions, it is hard to disagree. If Mr. Patterson should be re-elected, his management team — and the leaders of other large Michigan counties — might do well to keep Mr. Howley’s findings and conclusions in mind.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: omblade@aol.com