Brooks Patterson Is Our Coleman Young

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Ben FalikOakland County Executive Brooks Patterson has provoked headlines and headaches over the past week with his comments in the New Yorker disparaging Detroit.

Pundits are neither surprised at Patterson’s loose lips nor inclined to give him a free pass on some startling remarks — among others, likening the city to an Indian reservation.

With Patterson’s last sparring partner, Kwame Kilpatrick, serving time in federal prison, the profile comes across less as real-time rivals going toe-to-toe than as the shadowboxing of a pugilist past his prime.

And for all the noise, one thing is increasingly clear: As much as we may see them on the opposite sides of any and every spectrum, L. Brooks Patterson is our Coleman A. Young.
This is an observation, not an indictment. Each had — for that matter, both still have — fiercely loyal supporters. Writings on both refer to political gifts and what-ifs (big ifs) that involve each occupying the Oval Office.

Patterson receives praise for keeping Oakland County’s financial house in order while the housing market collapsed and Detroit descended into Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Young was, according to the Free Press, “the most austere Detroit mayor since World War II, reducing the workforce, department budgets and debt during a particularly nasty national recession in the early 1980s.”
Patterson has now been in office for two decades — as long as Young was — and has positioned himself, like Young, as the region’s electorally indomitable power broker.

Both men’s big mouths make it difficult to separate their work from their words. And it’s reasonable to suggest those words interfered with that work. Young’s tongue (“Swearing is an art form. You can express yourself much more exactly, much more succinctly, with properly used curse words.”) provided pretext for people and businesses that left the city.

Patterson told the New Yorker, “People are gonna forgive me my peccadilloes because we’re the best-managed county in America,” but Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson speculates that his statements could appreciably hurt his county’s position in negotiating over the future of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Patterson places himself at the center of Oakland County and Oakland County at the economic and political center of the region, possibly as reaction to the way Young did in Detroit.

Both are wrong. And their parochialism forced each to push against the pendulum rather than harness its momentum. Over the course of Young’s tenure, a decades-old trend of suburbanization accelerated in Southeast Michigan, as it did in many other metropolitan areas. In the 20 years that Patterson has been in power, the nation — including Metro Detroit — has experienced a renewed interest in urban centers as hubs for creativity, innovation and diversity.

Both men, in serving their constituents with hubris rather than humility, missed myriad opportunities to realize the region’s interdependence and mutual benefit.

And Patterson himself offered a prime example of the tendency to misattribute complex outcomes to loud, long-serving leaders. In 1997, after Young’s death, Patterson said, “He was singly responsible for the demise of Detroit.”

I heard a state representative say recently (referring to no one in particular), “We just have to let some of these old guys die off.” I wish Patterson a full recovery from his 2012 car accident and hope, for everyone’s sake, that his political career ends while he is still in his 70s. By then, Young will have been out of office a quarter of a century and will probably be as much the lightning rod as he was ever was.

Being polarizing in posterity, no less than while still in office, is like cement shoes. Their legacies sink not just the men and their minions, but people who could otherwise swim together.

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