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Politics and Prejudices: Ms. Vicki vs. the Last Dinosaur



"I used to say to my kids, 'First of all, there's no reason for you to go to Detroit ... I can't imagine finding something in Detroit that we don't have in spades here."

L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County executive

Brooks Patterson, now 77, was in a coma for much of his last re-election campaign, the result of a car accident in which he wasn't wearing a seat belt, and his being largely out of it may have had an effect on the results ... but not much.

L. Brooks got only 56.7 percent of the vote, down from more than 58 percent four years before. This year, he has somewhat regained consciousness, and is running for another four-year term.

Democrats, who have gradually been taking over Oakland County, have never been able to come close to beating Brooks, largely because of a perception that the county — easily Michigan's richest — is economically well-managed, thanks to his crack team of technocrats.

This year, however, Vicki Barnett, a former state representative from Farmington Hills, is giving him a battle. Business-friendly, she has a track record of getting votes other Democrats don't.

She thinks that when it comes to economics, Patterson is skating by on smoke, mirrors, and memories.

"We did well for a long time, but he's spending down the fund balance. What we should really be talking about is that the county has no master plan. We need one, and we need to keep it updated."

Besides, she added, there's the fact that Brooks has become an embarrassment. Rather than debate Barnett, Patterson has been lurching around denouncing Syrian refugees, and reviving false charges that there were plans to build a "Syrian refugee village" in Pontiac, perhaps as a headquarters for international terrorism.

Patterson failed long ago to move his political career out of Oakland, losing races for governor, senator, and attorney general.

But he has finally managed to become a national laughingstock. Nearly three years ago he was the subject of a profile in the high culture New Yorker magazine, which isn't exactly known for writing about provincial Midwestern politicians.

Their story, "Drop Dead, Detroit," was, however, written in the style they would use if they had discovered, say, a new species of cannibalistic insect, or a forgotten enclave in Mississippi where slavery has been secretly still practiced.

Brooks isn't exactly in favor of slavery, though he once said he "would rather own a 1947 Buick" than own Barbara-Rose Collins, back when she was on Detroit City Council.

And though he has possibly the most profane mouth in politics (beating even the pussy-grabbing Donald Trump) he's been clever enough to never directly invoke race.

But he's made a career out of bashing Detroit and its residents, and everyone knows what that means. In fact, he burst on the scene back in 1971 as a 31-year-old enfant terrible lawyer for Irene McCabe and NAG, the Pontiac-based anti-busing group.

There are a lot of legitimate reasons to oppose cross-district busing, but it was pretty clear white parents not wanting their kids to go to school with them coloreds was at the heart of it.

After Brooks had rung sufficient publicity out of NAG, he kicked them to the side of the curb and used his newfound notoriety to get himself elected Oakland County prosecutor in 1972.

He held that job until 1988, took a four-year break in which he dabbled in the private sector and found it not much to his liking, and then got elected county executive in 1992. He's never looked back.

His philosophy is clear; it is what Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt would have promoted if he had survived till, say, 1958, and then got stuck there. An environmentalist, Brooks is not.

"I love sprawl. I need it, I promote it, and I can't get enough of it," he likes to say. His solution to congestion? Add more lanes to I-75.

Brooks' solution to ward off any criticism? Why, bash Detroit, of course. For years, he blamed Coleman Young for everything bad that had ever happened since Cadillac showed up in his canoe.

The New Yorker quote that got the most attention and drew the most outrage was this: "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."

Outrage, that is, except from us old-timers who know LBP; (you can find the same quote in the Detroit Free Press from Sept. 21, 1975.) Full disclosure: At a roast once, Brooks said I was "living proof that cousins shouldn't fuck," which, except for the fact that children were present, was actually funny. Patterson isn't all bad.

He has absolutely no use for the religious right, who he calls the "Taliban," and has no compunction about taking on his fellow Republicans. We actually owe him a debt of gratitude for helping to stop Gov. Rick Snyder and the insurance companies from severely weakening coverage for victims of catastrophic car accidents.

But Oakland County and its estimated 1,242,304 people are changing. There are now more than 150,000 African-Americans, many middle-class residents of places like Southfield.

Most, presumably, have little use for Brooks' antics.

Growth is good, Barnett told me over breakfast in Southfield; sprawl isn't. "Every survey shows that's not what millennials want. They want walkable communities and transit," she said.

Patterson, by the way, almost kept the proposal to build and fund the vital Regional Transit Authority off the ballot, something even the normally anti-tax Detroit News agrees is vital for the region's future. He relented at the last moment, but isn't backing it.

Sprawl — say, making a new strip mall or subdivision out in the middle of nowhere — costs $80,000 per mile just to extend infrastructure. Barnett has an MBA, and has been a longtime investment consultant. She's not anti-development.

But she thinks the county should encourage logical, organic progress, and take better care of its established cities and suburbs, some of which, such as Pontiac and Oak Park, are clearly aging.

Convincing voters they ought to make a change may be hard. Patterson has hired a good management team that has mostly kept Oakland's economy humming even when the nation was in recession.

Oakland still has a rare and coveted Triple-A bond rating, making it a magnet for investment. Still, "we aren't preparing for the future, but coasting on the past," Barnett argues. She knows she faces "an uphill battle. Whatever I raise, he'll outspend me."

But she feels there's reason for hope. She does have a history of getting votes other Democrats don't.

Two years ago, she ran for the state Senate, losing a primary to incumbent Vincent Gregory by a mere 118 votes.

Later, she said, it was discovered that about 600 Republicans accidentally spoiled their ballots by trying to cross over and vote for her. You can't do that in a primary, but you can in a general election.

The odds may be against that happening this time. But in the age of Donald Trump, who is likely to lose Oakland by a landslide?

You never can tell.

Now that's the ticket: Gerry Hoffmann, a former motorcycle maniac who is now the Sage of Kalamazoo, has come up with the most brilliant political idea since universal suffrage. The Green Party should offer U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) its presidential nomination, and their current candidate, Jill Stein, should accept the vice presidential slot instead.

After all, if there's ever a year when a Franken-Stein ticket would look good ... it's this one.

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