L. Brooks Patterson passed away last week on Aug. 3. For the last 26 years, he was the Oakland County Executive, the chief official for one of the richest counties in America as well as the county in which most Metro Detroit Jews live. Suffice it to say, whether one liked Patterson or not, his passing is certainly the end of an era. Like many longtime, successful leaders, Patterson was controversial … to say the least.
Writer Ben Falik, a person who does know a bit about Metro Detroit from a ground-up perspective due to his work in the inner city, wrote a column in the Jan. 30, 2014, issue of the JN titled: “Brooks Patterson is our Coleman Young.” As you can imagine, his column generated a few letters to the editor of the JN. Falik, however, did make an indisputable historical point: both Patterson and Young were polarizing figures (this might be the understatement of the year). Depending on where one lives, one’s race, one’s political party of choice or whatever demographic one chooses to examine, people either loved or hated these guys.
I will leave it to other historians to debate the finer points of whether Patterson or Young were great winners or losers. I will just assure you that, beyond the loathing many people have for each of them, there is ample empirical evidence to show that both Patterson and Young did have many successes and some serious problems.
Of course, the question I asked myself is: What could I find in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History about Patterson’s interactions with the Jewish community? I was not (am I ever?) disappointed in the coverage from the historic files of the JN.
Patterson’s name appeared on 211 pages, and they reveal some interesting stories.
Patterson makes his first appearances in the JN in the 1970s. As Oakland County prosecutor, he gave presentations at various synagogues and Jewish men’s clubs.
Patterson also begins to appear on lists of supporters or as honorary chair for a wide range of Jewish events. For example, Patterson was the keynote speaker for the JVS Awards Dinner in 2004. He was also a supporter of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The archive search also shows that several Jewish organizations gave recognition to Patterson. In 1996, Israel Bonds honored him at its Jerusalem 3000 Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award Dinner. Patterson and then-Detroit Mayor David Bing were given the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund in 2010.
Patterson was unpredictable. On one hand, there is a good story from the July 29, 1994, issue of the JN. A Republican candidate for Oakland County Commission, referring to the U.S. Congress, stated that: “We need to get those Levins out. We have to get those Jews out of there.” Patterson quickly condemned the remarks and endorsed the candidate’s Democratic opponent. On the other hand, Patterson’s blog on the Detroit News website in October 2010 noted the propaganda of Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels and tried to reference it to then-U.S. Congressman Gary Peters, or as Patterson put it, “Herr Peters.” (See Oct. 28, 2010 JN.) Patterson had to apologize. And, this wasn’t the first or last time he was forced to do so for rash remarks.
Of course, I haven’t mentioned Patterson’s penchant for bashing Detroit or his somewhat legendary verbal jousting with Coleman Young. Mayor Young, of course, gave as good as he got. Neither was shy about attacking each other and each other’s political turf. It was perhaps entertaining, but both went beyond civility. Maybe they were the precursors of today’s polity?
Brooks Patterson did a lot of good toward a well-run, solvent Oakland County, to be sure. It can also be argued that he did little regarding regional harmony. A full history, which would take a lot of research and analysis, is beyond this column.
I’ll end where I began. An era has ended and one of the more memorable characters in Michigan history, like Coleman Young, has passed away.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.