DETROIT — A dozen or so years ago, I sat next to Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson at a Michigan State University football game. Not surprisingly, we talked politics.
“When we keep the focus on economics,” Mr. Patterson said, “we Republicans do very well,” especially in places such as his county, one of the largest and most affluent in the nation.
“But when the ‘Taliban’ — my name for the religious right — makes it about abortion and who is kissing whom, then the Democrats can beat us,” he said.
Last week, there was reason to remember that conversation.
Michigan Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, who has a history of posting hate-filled online rants against gay and Muslim-Americans, continued to refuse to step down, even after Michigan GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus called on him to resign.
Meanwhile, Mr. Patterson was the focus of national controversy after a profile of him appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Under the title “Letter from Michigan: Drop Dead, Detroit!”, the article quoted the longtime political fixture as saying: “What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation … build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”
Among other things, the 75-year-old former prosecutor said: “I used to say to my kids, ‘first of all, there’s no reason for you to go to Detroit … except for live sports. For that, fine. Get in and get out … and you do not, do not under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station. That’s just a call for a carjacking.”
Not surprisingly, that caused an uproar. Mr. Patterson drew savage criticism from newspaper editorials and Detroit politicians.
Mr. Patterson said he “felt ambushed and betrayed,” but added: “I’m not apologizing because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
What is it about Michigan Republicans that makes them talk that way? Though there may be surface similarities, the cases of Mr. Agema and Mr. Patterson are very different.
It is hard to have much sympathy for Republicans who voted to install the now 63-year-old Mr. Agema as their national committeeman two years ago.
The former airline pilot was never much of a team player. During his first term in the Michigan Legislature seven years ago, he skipped a key budget vote to go off to Siberia and hunt wild sheep. He was regularly rated one of the most ineffective lawmakers in Lansing.
Ever since, he has frequently been in hot water for posting scurrilous things about gay people on Facebook. Among them was a rant last spring claiming gays are responsible for half the murders in large cities. More recently, he charged that some gays were attempting to defraud American Airlines “to get free medical because they are dying between 38 and 44 years old.”
Most recently, Mr. Agema posted: “Have you ever seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life?”
There is no easy way to remove Mr. Agema from his post before his term ends in 2016, unless he resigns. By last week, virtually every prominent GOP officeholder in Michigan was calling for his resignation — except one.
Gov. Rick Snyder says he is above intraparty battles. Though Democrats have been denouncing the governor for failing to call for Mr. Agema’s ouster, many may secretly hope he stays in place as a poster boy for GOP intolerance.
Mr. Patterson is a different case. The full New Yorker profile was far more complex and nuanced than the lurid quotes extracted in local media. As Mr. Patterson was quoted: “Yeah, I sometimes say things that make people cringe.”
However, he also has won high marks — and stayed in office for two decades — thanks to the perception that he has boosted the economy of his county, one of the nation’s most prosperous.
Oakland County residents seem content to have Mr. Patterson as executive-for life. Once safely Republican, the largely affluent, educated, and sophisticated Oakland County electorate now regularly votes Democratic for president — and returns Mr. Patterson to office by a landslide.
As his party has moved farther right on social issues, Mr. Patterson has gone in the opposite direction. He attacks religious extremists and denounces hate crimes against gays.
Two years ago, he spent much of his fall campaign in a coma after a serious auto accident. His opponent, Kevin Howley, was a Harvard MBA and public policy expert who had run several high-tech companies.
On Election Day, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who was born in Oakland County, lost it badly. Mr. Patterson got 57 percent of the vote.
Still, there are whispers that Mr. Patterson should begin thinking about retirement. Eyes rolled when he instead announced he intends to run for re-election in 2016.
If so, he will almost certainly win. But whether that will be good for his party’s state and national image, especially in the Age of Agema, is another question.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org