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Can Vicki Barnett beat L. Brooks Patterson in Oakland County?

Oct 5, 2016

If this election follows the familiar pattern, Donald Trump will lose Oakland County, Michigan’s second-largest and easily most affluent county, and lose it badly.

Oakland was once reliably Republican. But the party’s move to the right on social issues hasn’t played well with largely highly educated Oakland voters, especially professional women.


Even though Mitt Romney grew up here, he lost the county four years ago by more than 52,000 votes. John McCain did far worse four years before that.

With the exception of a longtime county sheriff, Democrats have taken the major elected county offices one by one, including treasurer, clerk, prosecutor and water commissioner.

But they’ve never come close to beating the famous Republican who has been county executive for almost a quarter-century: The flamboyant and often cheerfully profane L. Brooks Patterson.

Almost three years ago, Brooks, as everyone calls him, was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker, not a place where you’d expect articles about county officials in the Midwest.

"I love sprawl," he told the magazine. "I need it, I promote it, Oakland County can't get enough of it."

But Patterson isn’t your average politically correct politician. “I love sprawl,” he told the magazine. “I need it, I promote it, Oakland County can’t get enough of it.”

Mostly, the piece quoted him doing what he is most famous for – bashing Detroit. Patterson said, among other outrageous things, that Detroit should be turned into a “reservation where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and throw in the blankets and corn.” He did not, of course, mean Native Americans.

The piece caused a sensation, except among those who know that Patterson was saying the same things in the 1970s.

But if you are wondering why sophisticated Oakland County voters have kept reelecting him, it’s because of the perception that his leadership has produced an efficient, economically well managed county. Indeed, Oakland has maintained a coveted and rare Triple A bond rating, and has a $200 million budget surplus.

Four years ago, Patterson was reelected with almost 57% of the vote despite being in a coma for much of the campaign, after a car accident in which he almost died. He clearly hasn’t fully recovered from the crash, but at age 77, wants another four-year-term.

But this year, he may be facing a stronger-than-usual challenge from a business-friendly Democrat who served as mayor, than three-term state representative, from the often Republican suburb of Farmington Hills.

Vicki Barnett is a lifelong county resident who says that while Patterson is indeed a social embarrassment, his economics are smoke and mirrors.

“He’s spending down the fund balance,” Barnett told me. She thinks his love of sprawl and disdain for mass transit is 1958 thinking. Today, she believes, voters, especially millennials, want walkable communities. She wants Oakland to invest in its established cities and build out from them.

So far, Patterson has been unwilling to debate her. Lately, he’s been mostly grabbing headlines by loudly proclaiming he will sue someone to stop more Syrian refugees from coming in to Oakland. Vicki Barnett says she knows she’ll be outspent, and knows she faces an uphill battle.

But she believes her county’s 1.2 million people have a leader who is increasingly out of touch.

She has a little over a month to get them to agree.

*Correction: A previous version of this commentary said Vicki Barnett was 58 years old. She's 62. We removed that reference from the audio and the copy above.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.