Find all of our Election 2020 coverage and other candidate interviews here. More interviews will be added as the election draws closer. Click here to read our conversation with Coulter’s opponent, Republican Mike Kowall.
Oakland County executive seeks vote of confidence from voters.
Democrat David Coulter was appointed Oakland County executive following the death last year of L. Brooks Patterson. He is now running for a full term against Republican Mike Kowall.
Here is our Zoom interview with Coulter, edited for clarity.
You were appointed to the County Executive role in 2019 following the death of L. Brooks Patterson. If given a full term, what will your top priorities be for the county?
I take seriously that COVID-19 is still here without a vaccine. I run the health department, and we’ve taken some pretty strict orders in Oakland County following the lead of the state, based on the science. I think they’ve made a great difference. This is both a public health concern and an economic one. It’s our priority to continue supporting our businesses, residents, seniors and cultural institutions, which is a challenge, especially if there’s not another round of funding. Keeping an eye on budget implications will also be important.
Before the pandemic, I launched Oakland Health 360 to bring affordable, quality, healthcare to each of our residents. We’re six months into a three-year-process to provide primary care, kids’ dental and wraparound human services at our public health clinics.
I’m also excited about Oakland80, which builds on the governor’s plan, Sixty by 30. Her goal is that 60 percent of Michigan residents earn a postsecondary degree or trade certification by 2030. Our county has a pretty highly educated workforce. We’ve created an ambitious goal of 80 percent by 2030. Increasing people’s skills and giving them access to training will help them get jobs our employers are so desperate for.
Your office, along with the University of Michigan, announced in a recent annual economic report that 25 percent of Oakland County small businesses have closed as a result of COVID. It also says your county is in a good position to recover. What makes you say that at this stage?
A couple things make us optimistic about recovery, though we don’t yet have the distinction between businesses that are closed temporarily and those that won’t be coming back. Oakland County was in really good economic shape before the pandemic. For the past decade, we’ve been working to diversify our economy so we’re not as reliant on auto-related business as we used to be. We’re also 20 points ahead of the state in terms of the education attainment of our citizens; there’s a lot of talent here.
This recession hasn’t yet impacted property values, which is where most of our revenue comes from and why we haven’t seen budget deficits like Detroit, the state of Michigan and others. These economic signs point toward a full recovery by the third quarter of 2022, although we have a lot of work to do to make sure that happens.
Your predecessor L. Brooks Patterson was a very polarizing figure locally as well as nationally. Our Jewish readership has very mixed feelings about his legacy. In what ways do you see yourself as similar or different from him in this role?
Brooks had policies that helped create the quality of life we have in Oakland County. I was a county commissioner for eight years during his time. I respect the fiscal way Oakland County runs its operations and was proud that Wall Street reaffirmed our AAA bond rating this year. That’s very important to me and I want to maintain it.
I do think we need to be more forward-looking as a county and willing to work with others toward the success of our region. I took issue when Brooks was in office, that our county wasn’t a very regional partner in Southeast Michigan. I don’t believe we’re in competition with the city of Detroit or Wayne and Macomb counties. We need to work together where we can to make our region stronger and more globally and nationally competitive.
I’m willing to build relationships with leaders in the region and work on things like transit and economic development. I’ve joined the Detroit Regional Partnership, which seeks to attract businesses around the country and around the world to Southeast Michigan. Brooks very famously said he’d rather join the KKK than the DRP.
We also haven’t done enough in the past to lift up, recognize and promote the diversity that exists in our county that helps make us successful. I’ve officially made us a Welcoming County within the Welcoming America organization. I’ve also hired a chief diversity officer to make sure everything we do is fair and makes people feel included and given equal opportunity for success in this county.
You accepted an endorsement from the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus. You said you’d bring progressive change to Oakland County, reject all forms of antisemitism, and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. How will you do this?
I will speak out against injustice when it happens toward anyone. As a gay man, I grew up having to stand up for my own rights and the rights of the LGBTQ community. I’m used to it. It’s very important to me that we be a welcoming community. Whether it’s antisemitism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, anti-immigration rhetoric — that cannot be allowed to take root. And it doesn’t take long for it to manifest under a quiet leader, as we’ve seen antisemitism rise under this president. I will continue to speak out against it in all forms. I want to be a voice for the Jewish community, which is very important to Oakland County.
What are some of your strategies for trying to encourage young people to move here or stay here to furnish their careers?
Transit is right up there. Young people aren’t as interested in owning a car as my generation was, but they’d like it to be easy to get to their job, downtown, etc. They’re also attracted to urban environments. That’s why we need to have a regional mentality. I’m not afraid of someone moving to Downtown Detroit, because later in life, they may move back to Oakland County for our schools, our parks and our outstanding quality of life.
I also look at places like Pontiac as a great untapped opportunity. Pontiac could become Oakland County’s Midtown, a dynamic place with energy and things young folks are looking for. I’d like a transit line going up Woodward and Telegraph to take you there.
One of our most popular stories this year was on Oakland County’s offering of an interactive map of COVID-19 cases by Zip code. This demonstrates our audience has an appetite for easily accessible and open government records. What are your ambitions in terms of government information accessibility to the public?
I’ve always been a huge advocate for transparency in my political career. I believe when you give people information, and good data, it gives them confidence to make better decisions. We don’t govern by the authority of our office, but by the trust of the people who put us here. Getting information out and being as transparent as possible is critical to that.
Shortly after we did the map, we saw disparities based on race in data. We recognized Black communities seemed to have a higher positive. We were the first county in Michigan to report COVID-19 numbers by race. This was particularly important to the Black community because it showed we understood this was hurting them worse. If we’re transparent with that data, even if we’re not exactly sure why it is, this helps promote trust. Our budget is also now online and searchable. We’re trying to put up everything we can and be as transparent as possible.