Brooks Patterson, longtime Oakland County executive, dies at 80
Lewis Brooks Patterson, a polarizing figure who dominated Oakland County politics and government in a career that spanned nearly half a century, died Saturday after battling pancreatic cancer for several months. The long-time Oakland County executive was 80.
Patterson, in his seventh term leading the county, passed away at 5:30 a.m. at his Independence Township home surrounded by family and friends.
Poisson will take the oath of office to serve as county executive until either the Oakland County Board of Commissioners appoints a successor within 30 days or a special election is held.
Mary Warner, Patterson’s daughter, released the following statement on behalf of the family:
“Our dad was a courageous fighter all his life and he fought right up until the end,” Warner said. “Our family is grieving over the unimaginable loss of our father, grandfather, hero, and friend. Many will remember him for his impact on Michigan and generosity toward Oakland County. We’ll remember him for his love and generosity toward his family and friends.”
In an emotional press conference in March surrounded by family and supporters inside a county building that bears his name, Patterson, a Republican, announced he was fighting Stage 4 pancreatic cancer but planned to continue his duties as county executive while undergoing treatment from the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.
At the time, he also announced he would not seek re-election when his current term — his seventh — ended in 2020. His death marks the end of an era, especially for county employees, some of whom worked with Patterson for decades.
In his final months, Patterson frequently spent several days each week in the office attending staff meetings and conducting business, sidelined only briefly by his chemotherapy treatments.
Throughout his career, the colorful, often wisecracking Patterson was the kind of elected official who could light up any room with his mere presence or fire up his critics with an offhand remark.
People seemed to either love or hate Patterson, who never backed down from a challenge, personal or otherwise.
He rose to prominence in the early 1970s while representing the National Action Group, which fought court-ordered busing aimed at desegregating Pontiac schools
Patterson survived an early firing as an assistant prosecutor and came back to defeat his former boss for the top job in 1972.
County voters repeatedly returned him to office. He served an unprecedented four terms as prosecutor and an unmatched seven terms as county executive starting in 1992, winning with some of the largest margins in Oakland County history.
Yet outside of Oakland County, Patterson could never gain enough traction with voters. Bids for higher office — Senate, state attorney general and governor — fell short.
Bill Ballenger, a former state lawmaker and long-time political pundit, said regardless of view, Patterson has rightfully earned a place in Michigan political history.
“For a half-century, Brooks Patterson has been the most prominent person in Michigan politics without holding statewide office, with the possible exception of (former Detroit mayor) Coleman Young,” said Ballenger, who puts out the digital website The Ballenger Report.
Patterson admired and kept a photograph of Abraham Lincoln in his office, was fond of Ronald Reagan and was on a first-name basis with Presidents Bush 41 and 43. Patterson even stayed at the Bush family home in Maine.
He was generally viewed warily by Detroiters because of his unabashed criticism of Young and frequent complaints about how his county was bled of tax dollars that subsidized city institutions such as Cobo Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
He opposed a regional transportation system because several Oakland County communities had opted out and because he didn’t view it as fair to support a program unpopular with his own constituents.
He drew national attention — and criticism — with comments he made in an interview published in the New Yorker in January 2014. Among them: Suggesting that the way to solve Detroit’s financial problems was to turn the city “into an Indian reservation.”
Patterson himself admitted his wit sometimes got the better of him, apologizing in August 2018 for telling reporters that he would “rather join the Klan” than work with a Detroit business group.
In May 2013, he compared fellow Republican Jase Bolger, then the speaker of the Michigan House, to Adolf Hitler, and to emphasize his point, pulled out a pocket comb and placed it under his nose like a mustache and raised his hand in the Nazi dictator’s signature salute. He later apologized to members of the Jewish community he might have offended — but not to Bolger.
“Sometimes when I’m passionate about a topic, I choose sharp words and purposely engage in hyperbole to get my point across,” Patterson admitted, referring to his “Klan” jibe. “Today, the words I chose offended a lot of people. I apologize for the poor choice of words.”
Despite his penchant for stirring outrage, Patterson mellowed somewhat in the later years of his career, Ballenger said.
“He came a long way from an anti-busing spokesman in the ’70s and maverick, renegade, hard-nosed prosecutor who was to the right of the state Republican party,” he said. “He became more moderate … and earned credit as an extremely strong county executive who defined that office.”
Patterson coped with health problems even before his cancer diagnosis.
He was seriously injured in a car crash Aug. 10, 2012, in Auburn Hills, when a vehicle driven by a Royal Oak man turned in front of Patterson’s car. The county executive’s driver, James Cram, was paralyzed and Patterson was hospitalized for several weeks with multiple broken bones and injuries.
Cram died in March in a hospital from injuries related to the crash.
Ballenger said Patterson’s forays for statewide elected office were “a victim of bad timing and bad luck.” He lost the GOP nomination for Senate in 1978 to incumbent Robert Griffin, who had initially said he wouldn’t see re-election.
“Several people ran for the seat but then dropped out after Griffin changed his mind and said he’d run again — except Patterson, who got smoked,” Ballenger said.
Patterson challenged and lost to longtime attorney general Frank Kelley, a well-known figure across Michigan. In a GOP primary for governor in 1982, Patterson was a close also-ran behind James Brickley and winner Richard Headlee, who lost in the general election to Democrat James Blanchard.
Ballenger said as county executive, Patterson was instrumental in transforming Oakland County with a 21st century vision and no-nonsense leadership. Patterson frequently said his legacy was to help make the county one of the best places to live, work, play and raise a family.
“His daughter described Oakland County as his ‘favorite child’,” said Bill Mullan, Patterson’s public information director for the past decade. “Around the office, we joked that we always knew when he was on vacation because we would hear from him several times a day with ideas about something he wanted looked into. Not unusual to receive an email from him at 5 a.m.
“He breathed Oakland County 24/7.”
Attention to detail paid off. Under Patterson’s watch, Oakland County weathered a recession in the early 1980s and reached full employment — under 5% joblessness. He presided over an $893 million annual budget and a county workforce of nearly 4,300 full and part-time benefit eligible employees.
The success is largely because of his successful job growth and retention strategies in the knowledge-based economy which included a forward-thinking Emerging Sectors program. He often boasted of the county being Michigan’s “economic engine” and home to more than 1,000 global companies, with several in the Fortune 500. His innovative programs, including Emerging Sectors, Medical Mainstreet and Tech 248, attracted more than $5.2 billion in private investment creating or retaining over 90,000 jobs.
The county has held an AAA bond rating since 1998, which Patterson described as a model for others.
The fiscal success has been largely credited to Patterson’s self-described “thoughtful management versus crisis management” approach to governing along with his three-year budget with a five-year outlook.
It resulted in Oakland County being ranked among the most digitally advanced counties in America by the Center for Digital Government for the past 13 years because Patterson embraced technology to improve customer service, work more efficiently, and collaborate with other governments.
Patterson also had a habit — he would be the first to admit — of surrounding himself with talented appointees with expertise and vision to move the county forward.
Vanderveen, the county director of central services, recalled his first staff meeting held by Patterson, who called all of his directors in and presented each with a Mont Blanc fountain pen.
“I thought ‘Hey this is pretty good,’” Vanderveen said. “Then he handed us all undated resignation letters to sign in the event he ever needed them. Fortunately, he never implemented mine. And I got to keep the pen.”
Patterson was generous to his staff, Patterson’s communication officer Bill Mullan recalled. Every year he held a Christmas party at some secret location and had department directors picked up by a bus and taken to a feast, where he told them all how much he loved them and appreciated their efforts.
“His view was government’s job was to develop and provide good services, to promote business and a good quality of life,” said Mullan.
Growing up in Detroit
Patterson’s own beginnings were humble. Born in Indiana in 1939, he moved to and grew up in the Rosedale Park neighborhood on Detroit ‘s west side. He attended St. Scholastica School and University of Detroit High School.
He obtained an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Detroit. He taught at Catholic Central High School in the city, obtained a law degree from the University of Detroit, and served in the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1964.
After law school, Patterson briefly worked in private practice before joining the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office as an assistant prosecutor. His boss, Prosecutor Tom Plunkett, a Democrat, fired the up-and-rising Patterson in 1971 because Patterson disagreed with his position favoring plea bargains. Patterson ran against Plunkett in 1972 and defeated him.
Ballenger described Patterson as a “quipster and toastmaster” whose comments could also be self-deprecating.
“He was not above poking fun at himself,” Ballenger said.
Mullan agreed, recalling how Patterson would reflect on one of his early out-state political visits in the northern Lower Peninsula, where a marque at the motel he was to stay at proclaimed: “Welcome L. Brooks Peterson.”
“As Brooks told it, he turned to someone in the car with him and said, ‘I think we have some work to do up here.’”
A lightning rod
But Patterson was far from an unknown quality, even 47 years ago.
Before earning a reputation as the county’s tough “no deal” prosecutor, Patterson was put in the national spotlight as the attorney for Pontiac resident Irene McCabe and her organization, National Action Group, which opposed a federal judge’s 1972 order for cross-district busing in the tri-county area.
Patterson sued on behalf of NAG and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Patterson’s legal position, declaring the lower court’s order for forced busing unconstitutional.
Ballenger said Patterson’s attitudes and politics have been mischaracterized by some critics.
“He was not an obstructionist or racist as some people in Wayne County or Detroit were led to believe,” Ballenger said. “He clearly put Oakland County first but he actually had a good relationship with Coleman Young and they could talk with each other. … Young was obviously a very strong advocate for his city, so it’s natural their viewpoints would be far apart.
“Brooks was never a progressive regionalist, and his off-the-cuff remarks, like those that appeared in the New Yorker article, were really nothing he hadn’t been saying for 40 years. They didn’t support accusations he acted as a racist.”
Patterson got along so well with one Wayne County executive, the late Edward McNamara, also a Democrat, that the two appeared together in a local TV show where they good-naturedly ribbed each other on the air.
“Brooks is one of the bravest guys I know,” said Royal Oak resident Jean Chamberlain, who had worked with Patterson since he became county executive as his South Oakland County representative.
“He has had some personal and health battles over the years and he came back fighting after every one of them — including chemo during his cancer,” said Chamberlain.
Patterson outlived Plunkett, Young and McNamara, among others.
Chamberlain said Patterson’s legacy will outlive “anyone I can think of — county executive or otherwise.”
“He is a very creative guy and almost every program started was his idea,” she said. “He would provide the resources to start them and step aside and not micro-manage them. He’s made this county what it is.”
Innovative programs and charities
Patterson’s footprint in Oakland County politics is extensive and in contrast to being conservative and tight-fisted, he championed and initiated several innovative government and social programs.
Among them: an Employee Suggestion Program, which has generated more than $5 million in taxpayer savings since 1993 and a Casual Day Program — in which employees pay to wear jeans and T-shirts to work — that has distributed more than $850,000 to local charities.
In 1998, Patterson founded Arts, Beats, and Eats, a four-day Labor Day weekend family-friendly event in Royal Oak that has raised more than $4.5 million for local charities and is ranked as one of the top art fairs in America. In the 1980s, he established The Rainbow Connection, which has granted more than 3,500 wishes to terminally ill children
Patterson’s administration has earned more than 410 awards and honors.
His son Brooks “Brooksie” Stuart Patterson died in a snowmobile accident in 2007, prompting Patterson to create a “Brooksie Way” half marathon and 5K races that annually attract about 5,000 runners of all ages to a course along Oakland University in Rochester Hills.
Proceeds from the race fund mini grants awarded to Oakland County groups that promote healthy, active lifestyles. More than 125 organizations have received $260,000 in mini grants.
“I have always admired Brooks for his dedication and commitment to the residents of Oakland County and his grand vision of what he would like to accomplish on their behalf,” said Deb Kiertzner-Flynn, race director for the Brooksie Way since 2008.
“The Brooksie Way is a prime example of far-reaching results of one such vision,” she said. “Brooks envisioned a world class running event, a quality of life activity families could enjoy together, and a venue to showcase the beauty of the Oakland County river trail system. With ‘The Brooksie,’ he achieved it all.”
Patterson is survived by his son Dr. Dayne (Heather) Rogers of Davisburg; daughters Mary (Gary) Warner of Clarkston and Shawn Sutherland of Waterford, daughter-in-law Jessie (Charlie) Damavoletes of Waterford; former wife Kathy (Bruce) Patterson of Clarkston; 11 grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.
Patterson had three close relatives — a twin brother Stephen; sister Harriett Hayden; and nephew Timothy Hayden — who all died of cancer.