L. Brooks Patterson, the wise-cracking, hard-drinking former prosecutor who ruled Oakland County for a generation, died of pancreatic cancer at 5:30 a.m Saturday at his Independence Township home. He was 80.
Patterson’s personality and his brand of Republicanism — tough-on-crime, low taxes, good services and an aggressive courtship of business investment and housing sprawl — made him unbeatable in Michigan’s wealthiest county, even as changing demographics moved Oakland into the Democratic column in most other races.
Patterson never lost an election in Oakland County, winning 11 times; four as prosecutor and seven as county executive. But he couldn’t parlay that popularity into higher office, losing in the Republican primaries when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1978 and governor in 1982.
The rest of the story
Lewis Brooks Patterson was born Jan. 4, 1939. He was one of three children, including a sister, Harriet, and fraternal twin brother, Stephen.
His father was a Chrysler autoworker who made the family home on Glastonbury Street in Detroit’s Rosedale Park neighborhood. Patterson attended what was then the University of Detroit High School on Seven Mile and later earned a bachelor’s degree at the nearby university of the same name.
Patterson taught briefly at Detroit Catholic Central High School, a rival of his alma mater, and dreamed of writing the great American novel. But he later returned to U of D, earning a law degree in 1967.
“As a student, the leadership just leaped from him,” said Elbert Hatchett, a longtime Pontiac defense attorney who taught Patterson for a year in law school and later became friends with him, despite political differences. “He was always prepared to fight for what he thought was right. He felt privileged to challenge what the law was. You could tell when he left the law school that he was destined for some heavy things.”
In 1969, Patterson took a job as an assistant prosecutor in Oakland County, quickly branding himself as tough on crime. Maybe too tough. The elected prosecutor, Thomas Plunkett, fired his young assistant after Patterson repeatedly criticized the boss as too lax in the plea deals he cut with defendants.
Patterson set up a law practice in Pontiac when a local homemaker, Irene McCabe, came looking for a lawyer to help her oppose busing as a means of integrating the school district. McCabe made national headlines by walking from Pontiac to Washington, D.C., to protest busing with her group, the National Action Group,
As her lawyer, Patterson became a hero to the anti-busing crowd. He was widely quoted about one of the most controversial topics of the 1970s, one that gave Patterson the chance to burnish his political brand. But that fight placed Patterson in some dicey political company.
In August 1971, busing opponents dynamited 10 Pontiac buses, which were to transport children to integrated schools.
Five former members of the Ku Klux Klan later were convicted of the crime. Patterson was never connected to any of them and he denounced the crime. But in the minds of many his detractors, he was considered a fellow traveler, an impression that would follow him for the rest of his career.
The opposition to busing didn’t hurt Patterson at the ballot box.
Brooks vs. Coleman
n 1972, he ran against his old boss Plunkett, defeating him with promises to crack down on crime. A year later, Detroiters elected Coleman Young as the city’s first African American mayor and two outsized personalities immediately clashed.
In his inauguration address in January 1974, Young declared: “I issue open warnings now to all dope pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit. Hit Eight Mile Road!”
The Detroiters who heard it roared their approval, interpreting it as a message for bad guys to get out of town. But Patterson and many of his supporters viewed it as a command for criminals to ply their craft in the suburbs.
Later that year, Patterson urged Detroiters to leave their guns at home when visiting Oakland County.
“Detroit is an armed camp,” Patterson said at the time. “I am not going to tolerate the spillover from Detroit into Oakland County.”
Patterson then refused to plea bargain weapon charges, noting that nine of the first 10 people charged under the policy change were Detroiters. Patterson said he could probably chart crime in Oakland committed by Detroiters.
“But it’s not like you’re going to East Berlin,” Patterson said. “You can’t put up a border guard but you have to put up an invisible border.”
Young, like many Detroiters, took note of the racial undertones.
“I think it’s a very intemperate remark from a very intemperate man, who’s played upon the fears and racial hatreds and divisions,” Young told the Free Press.
Populist provocateur Lou Gordon, whose Detroit-based TV and radio broadcasts were syndicated across the country in the 1960s and 1970s, called Patterson “a dangerous demagogue” and a “menace” for what he considered Patterson’s emotional style of law enforcement.
But Patterson was undeterred. The hostilities between Young and Patterson continued through the years and the pair often used each other as foils to cement the support of their constituents.
By 1980, Patterson’s name had become so well known that a 25-year-old mental patient, Alfred Lawrence Patterson, won the Republican primary for a Congressional seat by listing his name on the ballot as L. Patterson.
Incumbent Democratic congressman William Brodhead, trounced that Patterson by a 3-1 margin in the general election.
Patterson’s controversial remarks would continue for years.
When Young died in 1997, even his detractors acknowledged his place in history as the city’s first black mayor. Not Patterson. He blamed Young for the city’s demise, calling him “the captain of the Titanic.”
In 2014, The New Yorker profiled Patterson and quoted him as saying: “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘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 then throw in the blankets and corn.’ ”
The quote — in an article headlined, “Drop Dead, Detroit!” — touched off a firestorm with renewed accusations of racism against Patterson.
In 2018, Patterson met with members of the Oakland County Chamber of Commerce who asked whether he’d join a group of business people working to rebuild Detroit.
“Oh, hell no. I’d rather join the Klan,” Patterson was quoted as saying. He later apologized.
“Sometimes when I’m passionate about a topic, I choose sharp words and purposely engage in hyperbole to get my point across,” Patterson said. “Today, the words I chose offended a lot of people. I apologize for the poor choice of words.”
So was Patterson a racist?
One of his closest confidants, new County Executive Gerald Poisson, says no.
“He gets tagged with that because he wouldn’t genuflect to Coleman Young and he opposed busing for a client,” said Poisson, who acknowledged that his boss was prone to saying controversial things.
“Brooks is on a different wavelength than most people when he’s making analogies, let me put it that way,” said Poisson, who was sworn in as Oakland County executive late Saturday afternoon.
Hatchett, Patterson’s onetime law professor, served as president of the Oakland County NAACP in the late 1960s and sued Pontiac schools over unequal treatment of black students in a lawsuit that led to the court-ordered busing.
Despite deep differences with Patterson, Hatchett defends Patterson on that count. Patterson was a hard-nosed prosecutor, but he went hard on everyone, Hatchett said.
“I didn’t join the chorus that was saying he was a racist,” Hatchett said. “I liked him and respected him. He was a good lawyer but he was an even better prosecutor.”
In 1988, Patterson declined to run for a fifth term as prosecutor and instead returned to private law practice. But four years later, when Oakland County Executive Daniel Murphy retired, Patterson was back, running for the county’s top job, which he won easily.
Voters looked past Patterson’s controversies in part because of the success he brought to the county. Patterson and his team were regarded as innovators in county government, becoming early adopters of technology to streamline services.
Patterson prioritized economic development to expand the county’s job market and tax base. Some of his ideas took root, like Automation Alley, an auto supplier branding initiative; Medical Mainstreet, a similar effort aimed at the health care industry; and his Emerging Sectors initiative, which recruited companies in new industries with high growth potential.
Patterson launched programs to distribute pedometers to fourth-graders to combat childhood obesity. He also help bring Mandarin Chinese to county schools as a way to prepare future workers to do business in China.
Other ideas fizzled, like an effort to blanket the county with free wireless service to help attract businesses.
Oakland’s financial success was envied by other local governments. In addition to the AAA bond ratings, Patterson’s finance team developed three-year rolling budgets to keep the books balanced and tutored other government officials on their practices.
In the 1990s, Patterson moved county employees to a 401(k)-style pension system, saving the county millions. He later used bonds to pay off retiree health care liabilities.
“He got the county out of that financial guillotine that is just crippling other local governments,” county Sheriff Michael Bouchard. “He’ll be remembered for his results. He provided a great level of service at a very competitive price point.”
When Dennis Archer was considering a run for mayor in 1993, he arranged a lunch with Patterson to get know him better. Free Press political columnist Hugh McDiarmid got wind of it and wrote about it.
“I caught a lot of heck for it from the supporters of Mayor Young and people who disliked Patterson because of his comments about Detroit and his association with Irene McCabe,” Archer said.
Archer said he didn’t regret it because he wanted a better relationship with Patterson. In the end, he got it.
Archer said that Oakland County had created a computerized property records management system, where businesses could browse all the available buildings and land for potential location decisions. Detroit had nothing like it and Archer wanted something similar.
“He let me talk to their tech people on how they put it together,” Archer said. “He was very helpful to me and I appreciated it.”
After Archer was elected, he wanted to help minority-owned companies in Detroit and elsewhere do more business in the suburbs, so he asked Patterson and Macomb County officials for help.
“Both of them opened their doors to us,” Archer said.
Other initiatives didn’t go as well, including a push for regional transportation, which Patterson opposed. He eventually came to support regional taxes to support the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“There’s a lot to be said for what could have been done better, but there’s also a lot to be said of that was done well,” Archer said.
In 2010, Mark Hackel was elected to be Macomb County’s first executive and he sought advice from Patterson, who warned him of the challenges he’d face.
Patterson’s advice was sound, Hackel said, describing Patterson as authentic and noting he didn’t worry about how others perceived him.
“He was who he was,” Hackel said. “He didn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t. You gotta respect and appreciate that. He wasn’t afraid of controversy.”
Part Don Rickles, part Donald Trump, Patterson got plenty of laughs and controversies. He roasted Republicans and Democrats alike, often recycling gags with minor modifications.
At a retirement party for a friend, Patterson once introduced Eileen Kowall as “the smartest member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners.”
After pausing for effect, he added: “Which is a lot like being the best-dressed man in Russia.”
Patterson once referred to Republican former speaker of the Michigan House Jase Bolger, as “Adolf” for his handling of no-fault insurance reform, which Patterson opposed. He apologized after a round of criticism including from the Anti-Defamation League, which said the jab trivialized the Holocaust.
In 2012, when Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano was mired in a scandal that prompted an FBI investigation, Patterson was asked on a radio program what advice he’d give to Ficano.
Patterson said that Ficano should “go into the garage, pull the door down and leave the engine running.”
The remark sparked outrage, but Ficano, who was seated next to Patterson when it was made, said he took it as joke.
“To know Brooks, that was Brooks,” Ficano said. “He always had those kinds of quips.”
Ficano said he battled Patterson publicly on regional support for Cobo Center and other issues, but “personally, I always got along with Brooks.”
Kissing Tom McMillan
In the 1970s, Patterson represented the conservative side of the Republican Party pushing for legalization of the death penalty in Michigan, cracking down on porn shops and running strip clubs out of Oakland. But the party moved to the right of Patterson and by the 2000s, he was considered too moderate by some in the county.
Patterson reached out to gays and lesbians, urging the Legislature to include sexual orientation in hate-crime legislation. That stance drew fierce opposition from Tom McMillin of Auburn Hills and other social conservatives, who accused him of “carrying water for the homosexual movement.”
At a 2002 news conference in Royal Oak, Patterson called on Republicans to quit bashing each other over social issues. The event degenerated into name calling between conservatives and moderates.
Patterson called McMillin a “little nerd” before leaving, pausing on his way out to plant a kiss on McMillin’s cheek.
In 2004, McMillin extracted revenge, rallying delegates to the party’s county convention to oust Patterson as chairman.
“To put it mildly, the inmates took over the asylum,” Patterson said at the time.
Patterson’s popularity made him a prolific fundraiser for his campaigns, typically raising more than $100,000 a year. His campaign expense reports show he spent much of it on food and drinks with staffers and supporters.
But his partying sometimes crossed the line.
In 2000, Patterson and two of his employees marooned the county executive’s Cadillac on some railroad tracks near the county complex in Pontiac after attending the wake of a friend. Patterson paid for the damage to the car and later made light of it.
At his annual birthday party fundraiser each year, Patterson would give each guest a bottle of wine with a custom label indicating it came from “Chateau Brooks.” The label on that year’s vintage included a photo of Patterson sitting on the hood of the car parked on a railroad track.
In 2001, Patterson and a group of buddies got kicked out of the Rochester Chop House after they created a ruckus following a golf outing. A few weeks later, Patterson held a fundraiser at the restaurant, stating on the invitation that it would begin at 5:30 p.m. and last “until we get thrown out.”
In 2003, one of Patterson’s staffers was convicted of drunken driving when he struck a parked car while driving home from a lunch hosted by Patterson. In June 2003, Patterson was stopped for driving erratically on Dixie Highway as he returned home from a charity golf outing at Birmingham Country Club.
When Oakland County Sheriff’s deputies stopped the car and realized he was the driver, they declined to administer a Breathalyzer test, despite his slurred speech and staggered walk, which were caught on video.
Instead, they drove him home. When word of the special treatment leaked out, Sheriff Bouchard suspended the deputy and a sergeant for the actions. Patterson later apologized to them and to residents.
“I work hard,” Patterson said. “And as a reward, I’ve allowed myself to play hard. But now, I have to reassess that rule. I intend to play a hell of a lot less.”
He later pleaded no contest to a charge of reckless driving and denied having a drinking problem.
“I don’t think I have a problem, but some people would say that drinking to the point of having even one episode means you’ve got a problem,” he said. “I’m not here to make excuses for my behavior, which frankly was pretty stupid.”
Personal tragedies played out publicly for Patterson and tempered some of this sharper edges.
In 1980, a Patterson friend, Ron Dobson, died in a private plane crash that also killed his two children and critically injured his wife.
Patterson established a nonprofit to raise scholarship money in the names of the children. About five years later, the Rainbow Connection switched its focus to granting wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.
The charity has sent children to Disney World, the White House, and on fishing adventures in Alaska. In one case, it bought a therapy horse for a young girl battling cancer.
“It was one year before Make-A-Wish Foundation came to Michigan,” said George Miller, executive director of Rainbow Connection. “It’s grassroots. It’s only focused on kids in the state of Michigan. Brooks has been a very humble, in the background, supporter.”
The foundation now raises about $2.5 million annually and recently granted its 3,500th wish, Miller said. The family asked that memorial donations be made to the foundation. See rainbowconnection.org.
Twice divorced, Patterson remained close to his second wife, Kathy, with whom he had two children.
In February 2007, their 28-year-old son, Brooks Stuart Patterson, known to friends as Brooksie, died in a snowmobile accident in Genesee County. News of his death spread quickly and was felt across the political spectrum.
Among the first people to phone Patterson with condolences was a political sparring partner, then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
Two days before his son died, Patterson had announced that he was planning a foot race in Oakland County to promote healthy lifestyles.
After his son’s death, the race was named the McLaren Brooksie Way Half Marathon, which has raised more than $250,000 for grants to Oakland County communities to promote physical activity.
On Aug. 10, 2012, Patterson was badly injured in a car crash in Auburn Hills. Patterson was a passenger in his county-issued Chrysler 300. Retired state trooper James Cram, who’d been a driver for Patterson for years, was at the wheel.
Cram was paralyzed in the crash and died earlier this year. Patterson suffered numerous broken bones and required emergency surgery.
He spent days on a ventilator in a coma and battled the injuries for the rest of his life. Patterson mostly used a wheelchair after the crash, occasionally walking short distances. His booming frog voice was reduced to a raspy whisper.
The crash also had a political impact on Patterson. Republicans have long advocated for reforming Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance system, which guarantees lifetime medical benefits to people injured in auto accidents but contributes to the nation’s highest insurance premiums.
After the crash, Patterson split with his party and personally lobbied the Legislature to keep the system in place, noting that Cram needed those benefits for the rest of his life.
Source: John Wisely, “L. Brooks Patterson dies after leading Oakland County for a generation“, Detroit Free Press, August 3, 2019.