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, we Republicans do very well,” especially in places like 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 who, then the Democrats can beat us.” Last week, there was reason to remember that.
Michigan Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, who has a history of posting hate-filled rants against gay and Muslim Americans, continued to refuse to step down, even after both Michigan GOP Chair Bobby Schostak and Republican National Chair Reince Priebus called on him to resign.
Meanwhile, Patterson himself was the focus of national controversy after a profile in the Jan. 27 issue of the prestigious New Yorker. Headlined “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 prosecuting attorney 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.
The Oakland County executive drew savage criticism from both newspaper editorials and Detroit politicians.
He said he “felt ambushed and betrayed,” but added, “I’m not apologizing because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
One interesting question might be … so what is it about Michigan Republicans that makes them talk that way?
For one thing, though there may be surface similarities, the cases of Agema and L. Brooks Patterson are very different.
In the first case, it is hard to have much sympathy for Republicans who voted to install the now 63-year-old 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 Legislature seven years ago, he skipped a key budget vote to go to Siberia and hunt wild sheep. He was regularly rated one of the most ineffective legislators in Lansing.
Ever since, he has been frequently 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, Agema posted “Have you ever seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life?”
Unfortunately perhaps for Republicans, there is no easy way to remove him from his post before his term ends in 2016 unless he resigns. By last week, virtually every prominent GOP officeholder in the state was calling for his resignation except one: Gov. Rick Snyder, who says he is above inter-party battles.
Though Democrats have been denouncing the governor for failing to call for Agema’s ouster, many may secretly hope he stays in place as a poster boy for GOP intolerance.
Brooks Patterson, however, is a different case — and the full New Yorker profile was far more complex and nuanced than the lurid quotes extracted in the local media. As he himself was quoted as saying, “Yeah, I sometimes say things that make people cringe.”
However, he also has won high marks — and stayed in office two decades — thanks to the perception that he has boosted the economy of his county, one of the nation’s most prosperous. Today Oakland County has more than 1.2 million people, or almost twice the population of Detroit.
While Detroit is in bankruptcy court and drowning in debt, Oakland has a fat surplus. Governing magazine last year praised the county’s management, especially its unusual three-year budget cycle. Nor are Brooks Patterson’s inflammatory comments about Detroit new; he originally made the “Indian reservation” quip in 1975, when he was still a young and brash county prosecutor.
Since then, he has tried and failed three times to win statewide office. He has reconciled himself to spending his life in Oakland. And in turn, county residents seem content to have Brooks as county-exec-for life. Once safely Republican, the largely affluent, educated and sophisticated Oakland residents now regularly vote Democratic for president — and return Patterson by landslides.
Ironically, as his party has become further right on social issues, Patterson has gone in the opposite direction, attacking religious extremists and denouncing hate crimes against gays.
Two years ago, he spent much of his fall campaign in a coma from 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 Mitt Romney, who was born in Oakland County, lost it badly. Patterson got 57 percent.
Still, there are whispers that the longtime county executive should begin thinking about retirement — and eyes that 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 indeed.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.