Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

October 21, 2012

The battle to run Oakland County

There may be no county in the nation as strongly identified with one man as Oakland County is with L. Brooks Patterson, who has dominated the political landscape since 1972.

First as prosecutor, then as county executive, Brooks has become a legend, the county's Mr. Republican; 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 have long been part of the landscape.

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

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

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

But an opposite change began happening in neighboring, largely white-collar Oakland County in the 1990s. Affluent, educated Oakland 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 hasn't voted GOP 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 voters still keep voting for the man most of them call Brooks. The once tough and wiry young prosecutor is now 73, puffy, and not exactly physically fit. Nor is he able to campaign very 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 exactly as long as his ancient enemy, Coleman A. Young, was mayor of Detroit. But while the mayor then retired, Patterson wants at least one more four-year term.

But this time, he has a Democratic opponent who says re-electing Brooks 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 who grew up in Farmington Hills, then moved back to Oakland in 2004 after working for 17 years for companies in a variety of states.

His chances of beating Brooks are probably of the extreme long-shot variety. But he has formidable credentials; after Kalamazoo College, he earned an MBA and a Master's in Public Policy and International Trade, both from Harvard.

Last December, he had finished one major project when he happened to see a report on "quiet desperation in Oakland County," which prompted him to do some research.

"Yes, Oakland County balances its budget, and yes, the county is better off than Detroit," Howley said over coffee in a diner near his Huntington Woods home. "But is that really the best we can do?"

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

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

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

The 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 says, "and the Patterson administration does not seem to understand, or refuses to acknowledge, the scope of the problem."

With the population aging and little new growth, Oakland's problems may well get worse before they get better. What Howley thinks is needed is a vision — and some form of ground-up, strategic-based urban planning. He doesn't think younger generations are enamored of urban sprawl and giant, semi-rural homes as far as possible from any city center.

"Times have changed. Among all generations there is a higher demand for community space like coffee shops or common areas like a village square," said Howley, who added that he thought people were increasingly looking for "place, not space."

He himself is one of these. 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.

Trying to run against the legend has been difficult, Howley said — especially since Patterson's accident made it easy for 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 the race, and sources say the Howley campaign might end up spending as much as $500,000. But it is hard to find anyone who even thinks it possible that Patterson might lose.

Still, four years ago virtually no one thought Republican Chief Justice Cliff Taylor could lose, either.

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

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

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