Commentary: Challenging Brooks; Challenging Oakland

Oct 12, 2012

For the last 40 years, two things have been true. Oakland County, home to most of Detroit’s white-collar suburbs, has been Michigan’s richest county. And L. Brooks Patterson has been Oakland’s dominant
personality, first as county prosecutor, then as county executive. When his current term ends in January, he will have held that office for 20 years.


That’s exactly as long as his longtime political enemy, Coleman Young, was Mayor of Detroit. But while Coleman finally retired after 20 years, Brooks is, at age 73, running again.


He wants another four-year term, and I don’t know a single politician who thinks he won’t win, even though Oakland itself has been gradually changing. Half a century ago, it was reliably Republican turf, with a booming growth rate that quadrupled its population after World War II.


But the population has leveled off, at 1.2 million. And many of Oakland’s affluent, educated voters are no longer comfortable with the social issue stands of the national GOP.


No Republican presidential candidate has carried Oakland in the last 20 years, and polls show that even Mitt Romney, who grew up here, isn’t likely to either.


But Brooks Patterson always wins easily, mostly against token opposition. This time, however, he is facing what could be a major challenge. Kevin Howley is a business turnaround expert with an impressive track record in both the public and private sector.


Twenty years longer than Patterson, Howley grew up in Farmington Hills when it was largely rural.  But then he earned an MBA and a Master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, and for 20 years, lived and worked in a number of states.


Eventually he came home, where he and his partner are raising their two adopted kids in Huntington Woods. “I am a CFO by training, and it wasn’t long before I realized that a lot of the story about Oakland County’s success was pretty much outdated myth,” Howley said. Yes, Oakland still has a balanced budget, but the decline of the auto industry wiped out twenty-two percent of county jobs in the last decade. The population is aging, and young people are leaving the county and the state because they can’t find work. And while Patterson
is still a proud advocate of urban sprawl, Howley thinks people today want smaller, more compact and walkable communities --  “place not space,“ as he puts it.


“You know, this region is the only one of its size in the country without regional transportation. You have to question the lack of vision,” Howley said. Nor does he think Oakland’s longtime philosophy of shunning Detroit is helpful. “The people outside Michigan, we’re all Detroit,” he told me. We sink or swim together.


Hawley says the campaign has been somewhat frustrating. Patterson was badly injured in an August automobile accident, and his staff says this meant debates were out of the question.


The presidential race has sucked up most of the publicity, and Howley has struggled to get noticed. But he does have an interesting package of ideas for revitalizing Oakland, its economy and culture, that deserve attention. For, this much is clear: the long run, at some point, everybody has to change to continue to thrive.