This year’s race for Oakland County Executive is significant. Not because of who is on the ballot but because of who is missing.
For more than 26 years, L. Brooks Patterson held the top job in Oakland County. He died last year at 80-years-old. The 2020 Presidential Election will be the first time in a generation that the 1.2 million people living in Oakland County will see a ballot without his name.
Instead, their choice is likely between Democratic incumbent Dave Coulter and his Republican rival Mike Kowall.
Brooks Patterson’s County
Long-time Republican L. Brooks Patterson was and remains a divisive figure. During his tenure, Oakland County maintained a triple-A bond rating and balanced budgets year after year. It was often cited as one of the wealthiest counties in the country for its high median household income. Economic accomplishments such as job creation and tax reduction helped Patterson win time and time again, even when most of the people who voted for him chose Democrats on the presidential level.
Patterson was also notorious for his bigoted rhetoric. Before kickstarting his political career as Oakland County prosecutor in the 1970s, Patterson made a name for himself as an opponent of a court-ordered busing plan to end segregation in Pontiac’s public schools. He rejected the idea of regional public transit throughout his career.
Patterson took on several anti-Detroit stances. In a 2014 New Yorker profile, he’s quoted for telling his children that there’s no reason to ever go into the city. A few years later, he said he’d “rather join the Klan” than join a group of businesses working to reinvest in Detroit.
“The factions are real and they are a threat,” Patterson said in his final State of the County address in February 2019, describing what he called “destructive” and “amoral” forces tearing at the fabric of the American government. “We have Antifa, MoveOn.org, By Any Means Necessary. They have become more vitriolic threatening the worse of mob rule that ultimately could destroy the republic that our forefathers dared to launch.”
Six months later, in the middle of his seventh term, Patterson died at age 80. His death left a vacancy in the executive seat, creating an opportunity for local Democrats.
Democrats Choose Coulter
Last year, the Democratic party held majority control of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for the first time in four decades. It was the board’s job to appoint Patterson’s replacement. Their choice was Ferndale mayor and former county commissioner – Dave Coulter.
“I was really honored,” Coulter says. “We reach out across the aisle, we make sure that we know what the priorities of both caucuses are, Republican and Democrat, and we try to incorporate those that we think are sound policy for Oakland County.”
Since Coulter’s appointment, Oakland County has continued its hallmark fiscal achievement of balancing budgets and continuing its bond rating. The former mayor says that’s because he has the ability to communicate in a bi-partisan fashion.
But Coulter says that does not mean avoiding Democratic priorities.
“A $15 an hour minimum wage for all of our county employees is in that budget,” Coulter says. “We’re going to invest in environmental sustainability and create a sustainability plan in Oakland County that will help protect the environment and our planet.”
Coulter says his focus going into the election is managing the economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. His campaign points to his early order to close malls and to the creation of a small business stabilization fund as some of his successes dealing with the emergency.
He says he wants to “transform” how the county addresses health disparities by integrating care services like food and housing assistance at its clinics. Coulter says he helped create the position of Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer to address bias and discrimination, both in government and in the community
“I want to make sure that any service we’re providing, any programs that we’re creating and the very way that we do business is equitable for everyone in our county,” Coulter says.
Coulter says the idea of equity has informed his education agenda. He’s set a goal of increasing the number of adults with post-secondary degrees through the “Oakland80” initiative. He says he supports regional mass transit as a way to “level the playing field” and jumpstart local business development.
“Metro Detroit is not growing as a region,” Coulter says. “And part of the problem is that we’re losing our young people. They graduate from high school or college and they move to other parts of the country and one of the reasons is mobility.”
Coulter says Oakland County is increasingly turning to public officials with progressive values and leadership like his that collaborate, rather than competes, with others in the region.
Kowall Seeks to Take Back Oakland County for the GOP
That sentiment of cross-county cooperation and bi-partisanship is something Mike Kowall, the Republican candidate, is also championing in his campaign.
“We need to work together on this stuff because it’s going to get extremely difficult,” Kowall says. “COVID is going to present some problems that we’ve quite frankly never had to deal with before.”
Kowall is the former majority floor leader for the Michigan Senate and served in both chambers of the legislature for over a decade. He touts his efforts in passing laws on autonomous vehicles and reducing mandatory minimum sentencing from drug offenses as his proudest achievements in Lansing. Kowall says when it comes to working with the other major political leaders in Metro Detroit many of which are Democrats, there are some caveats.
“We can continue to work together as long as it’s all reasonable minds sitting down and discussing things and not having regionalism described as give us the money and go away,” Kowall says. “We want to take an active role.”
Kowall says that includes drafting a plan for regional transit. He says autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing should be part of the strategy to fill some of the distance gaps.
“We just have to come up with a better way of financing it and not making homeowners pay for it that will never be able to use the service,” says Kowall. “That’s a true taxation without representation.”
Kowall preaches a Brooks-ian fiscal discipline for the county and wants to focus on attracting new technology businesses in 5G networking and aerospace. He says outside of the economic priorities facing the county, there are social needs around mental health.
“We’re seeing a lot of violence upticks especially in the Pontiac area,” Kowall says. “A lot of that stems from drug problems, social issues, psychiatric problems, and there’s no place to go.”
Libertarian Nepomuceno Seeks Deregulation
The race’s third-party candidate, Connor Nepomuceno, sees deregulation and the expansion of personal freedoms as the cornerstones to his campaign. The Libertarian says he’d localize Oakland County’s budget handing down project planning and policymaking to townships and cities.
“That’s one less layer of bureaucracy. That’s one less layer of money being leached away from people,” says Nepomuceno.
That includes the response to the pandemic, which Nepomuceno says has been “too authoritarian” in Oakland County and responsible for bigger problems like increased unemployment and drug misuse.
“I think if local communities had the control, they could have shut down on their own terms,” Nepomuceno says. “Those who are less at risk, they could have stayed open and that could have saved tens of thousands of jobs.”
He’s also a proponent of decriminalizing psychedelic plants. “I think we need to explore alternative treatments to mental health care and I think deregulation, in general, can give people all kinds of options to explore,” Nepomuceno says.
The first-time candidate says there’s a sense of political change in Oakland County in the absence of L. Brooks Patterson. And that’s reflected by early voter sentiment too, which shows Democrats leading in the polls as well as campaign fundraising. According to its latest election filings, Dave Coulter’s campaign has raised more than $750,000. That’s three-times more than what Mike Kowall has reported. Connor Nepomuceno requested a disclosure waiver, saying he does not expect to raise or spend more than $1,000.