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L. Brooks Patterson is embarrassing himself

Jack Lessenberry

Nearly half a century ago, a young lawyer started grabbing headlines in Oakland County, then across the state.

His name was L. Brooks Patterson, and he was the attorney for NAG, an anti-busing group in Pontiac.

They were, essentially, parents who did not want their kids sent to other districts to go to school with black children.

Patterson, a flamboyant Republican, rode their cause to win election as Oakland County prosecutor. He held that job for years, then became Oakland County executive 22 years ago.

He’s 76 now, and is still suffering the effects of a horrendous auto accident three years ago, which left him in a coma for weeks. That happened during his latest election campaign, one in which he was vigorously opposed by a successful business executive, Kevin Howley.

It was a Democratic year, but Brooks, as everyone calls him, won easily anyway.

My guess is that he expects to die in that job.

Early, ill-considered campaigns for governor and senator angered party leaders, ended in defeat and left him stuck in his suburban base.

There have always been two Brooks Pattersons.

The “good Brooks” has presided over competent, honest, and efficient government in Michigan’s richest and second largest county.

Patterson has been surprisingly liberal on issues like gay rights, denounced Governor Snyder’s attempt to limit benefits for victims of catastrophic car accidents, and has no use for the religious right, who he sometimes calls the Taliban.

However, the bad Brooks can be counted on to embarrass his constituents every few years, something usually involving either his misuse of alcohol or race.

The last time he made headlines was almost two years ago, when, in a New Yorker profile, he suggested, as he has for 40 years treating Detroit like an Indian reservation.

“Build a fence around it and throw in the blankets and corn,” he said.

Then, this week he was back in the news, piggybacking on the national hysteria against Syrian refugees, something Governor Rick Snyder helped to start by saying they were, for now, not welcome in Michigan.

This is all because Syrians may (or may not) have been among the terrorists in Paris.

Two days ago, Patterson lashed out at the county seat of Pontiac for allegedly planning to build what he called a “Syrian refugee village.”

He said “the ranks of the refugees have been and will continue to be infiltrated by those who would harm or kill us.”

Well, it seems that, to put it politely, Patterson apparently didn't know what he was talking about.

Well, it seems that, to put it politely, Patterson apparently didn’t know what he was talking about.

What is actually happening is that a group purchased an abandoned school and is attempting to turn it into a community center for people who are mostly already here.

Andy Meisner, Oakland County’s treasurer, rejected Patterson’s demand that he not help the project.

He said Brooks is risking sabotaging “a project that will bring much-needed economic development to Pontiac and provide housing for people desperately in need who have undergone exhaustive background checks.”

Nobody, by the way, is calling this a “Syrian refugee center” except Patterson.

Oakland County has changed a lot since Brooks burst on the scene.

You have to wonder how long voters there will feel he projects the image they want to show to people elsewhere in the world.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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