Oakland County's longstanding executive, L. Brooks Patterson, died at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday from cancer. He was 80.
It seems much of the local media had already lined up obituaries for Patterson, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. The Detroit Free Press called him a "wise-cracking," "hard-drinking," "native Detroiter known for bashing his hometown, often in racially charged terms." Crain's Detroit Business wrote he was "known as much for his management of the state's wealthiest county as for his sometimes controversial and divisive comments and humor." The Detroit News said he "lived by his own rules." Deadline Detroit remembered him as "a character with a big political footprint."
We know it's taboo to "speak ill of the dead," but in the style of "Brooksy," let's call it like we see it, without dulling the edges: The man was a racist, and contributed mightily to metro Detroit's segregation problem.
After growing up in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood and earning a law degree at the University of Detroit, Patterson left Detroit for Oakland County to start a career as a tough-on-crime assistant prosecutor in Pontiac. He never looked back.
Once he started his own law practice in Pontiac, he took on Irene McCabe as a client. McCabe was one of the most vocal opponents of racially integrating schools by busing, and Patterson appeared in many debates about the issue. The fight got so bad that shortly after, the KKK bombed 10 Pontiac school buses — a crime that was denounced by Patterson, but his incendiary style certainly didn't help.
In 1992, he won the seat of county executive. Patterson swiftly took aim at Coleman Young, Detroit's first Black mayor. "I intend to move past Coleman Young as a regional leader," he said at the time. "Oakland County is the epicenter of activity in the region."
His promise turned out to be true, with Oakland County maintaining its AAA bond rating under Patterson's long, successful reign. However, in Patterson's mind, Oakland County could only prosper at the expense of Detroit. From a 2014 New Yorker profile:
“I used to say to my kids, ‘First of all, there’s no reason for you to go to Detroit. We’ve got restaurants out here.’ They don’t even have movie theatres in Detroit — not one. ... I can’t imagine finding something in Detroit that we don’t have in spades here. Except for live sports. We don’t have baseball, football. For that, fine — get in and get out. But park right next to the venue — spend the extra twenty or thirty bucks. And, before you go to Detroit, you get your gas out here. You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That’s just a call for a carjacking.”
In the same interview, he compared his boycott against the city to genocide against Native Americans:
"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 then throw in the blankets and corn.'"
It seems Patterson's vision for the region could be wrong, in the end. In the past decade, Detroit's downtown has seen a stunning transformation as companies and residents moved back in, buoyed by a "comeback city" narrative. Suddenly, Patterson felt it was now Oakland County that was getting left behind.
But last year, Patterson doubled down on his anti-Detroit stance. When asked if he'd join a group of regional business leaders working to help Detroit, Patterson chose the worst possible words in response.
"Oh, hell no. I'd rather join the Klan," he said. He later apologized, saying, "Sometimes when I’m passionate about a topic, I choose sharp words and purposely engage in hyperbole to get my point across."
One has to wonder why his mind so quickly went there, though. If you look at his career in the aggregate, it's not hard to see why that could possibly be.
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