January 29, 2014 - "Sometimes the truth hurts."
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That's what longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said about remarks he made about Detroit in an article published in The New Yorker last week.
Patterson, a resident of Independence Township, responded to an interview request from The Clarkston News for his thoughts over the article "Drop dead, Detroit." Written by Paige Williams, the article was subtitled "The suburban kingpin who is thriving off the city's decline."
The Republican politician, who has served as Oakland County executive since 1992, admits some comments over the years have gotten him into trouble.
"This is not the first time I have been through a firestorm," he said. "The article made me seem like some king pin being chauffeured around on a chariot."
Patterson is convinced the reporter had an agenda, and he was ambushed and betrayed.
Williams, who responded by email, disagreed.
"The story was always Oakland County, L. Brooks Patterson, and how the county achieved success within the context of Detroit's struggle to survive," she said.
Williams added she told Patterson and his staff numerous times that Patterson was the subject of the article.
"Patterson's PR chief, Bill Mullan, confirmed this before I visited Michigan, with an email that read, 'Mr. Patterson has agreed to be the subject of your profile,' and it's something that I reiterated to Mr. Patterson several times over the course of my time with him," she said. "The story was vetted extensively with Mr. Patterson, by a fact checker, item by item, quote by quote.
Patterson said the original premise of The New Yorker article was lost and many in-depth discussions were not even included in the piece.
"Do me a favor and headline this article 'Drop Dead New Yorker,'" Patterson laughed.
Williams wrote about big-box districts, fuel megacenters, shopping malls, restaurants and other features of "American suburban innovation."
The article was also laced with colorful comments from Patterson, including "I made a prediction a long time ago, and it's come to pass. I said what we're going to do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and throw in the blankets and corn."
Patterson said Williams must have worked hard to dig that quote from the archives.
"I have long since apologized for that remark, and I will not apologize again because I said it 38 years ago," he said.
Williams said Patterson said the quote directly to her and there was never any agenda.
The comment provoked responses from civil rights groups, Native American tribes, and others in social media and news websites calling for Patterson to apologize, retire or worse.
Patterson said he regrets the comment, which he meant as a comparison between Detroiters and Native Americans receiving government assistance, but he does not deny he meant the analogy behind the quote.
Patterson said Detroiters are dependent on public assistance from food to education as the city depopulates.
"Detroit is a dependent city full of people dependent on welfare checks and food assistance," he said.
While Detroit's population has shrunk from two million residents in the 1960s to about 700,000 now, Oakland County's population has grown to over 1.2 million residents.
"Those who could, voted with their feet and moved out of Detroit," he said. "Those that can't are stuck there dependent on government assistance - welfare checks, food stamps or they can't sell their houses."
He denies the comments was racist – "it's just the truth," he said.
Patterson also stands behind advice he had to his children about carjacking in the city.
"I used to say to my kids, 'First of all, there's no reason for you to go to Detroit. We've got restaurants out here.' They don't even have movie theatres in Detroit — not one," he said.
Visit for sports, but be extremely careful.
"Get in and get out," he said. "Park right next to the venue - spend the extra 20 or 30 bucks. And, before you go to Detroit, you get your gas out here. You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station. That's just a call for a carjacking."
It's good advice for anyone, he said.
"They just can't handle the truth, and that's what it is--the truth. I make no apologies for that advice because it's the right advice to give your kids," he said. "I have had at least 50 fathers walk up to me and say 'I tell my kids the same thing.' It's true you don't stop in the city."
He won a seat as Oakland County Prosecutor in 1972.
Patterson said several public disagreements with former five-term Mayor Coleman Young also caused him to be labeled a racist.
"No one could disagree with Young at that time - he was a black icon in the city, but he didn't sign my paychecks and neither did anyone else in Detroit so I didn't care and I still don't," said Patterson.
"It was those events that forever cast me in a light of being racist," he explained.
Patterson said he is not racist he just tells the truth.
"Really it's like that one line in a movie where they say you just can't handle the truth," he said.
Truth is, he added, he has a right to an opinion.
"Yet it seems once you cross 8- Mile Road, which separates affluent Oakland County from the city of Detroit, you forfeit your right to an opinion," he said. "I was born in Detroit, I grew up there and went to school there. As a native son, I have the right to complain, but they can't seem to take criticism."
Even though close together, Detroit and Oakland County are in much different circumstances. That's what Patterson said Williams told his office she was going to explore in the article - why Oakland County is so well managed and Detroit is in shambles.
Williams said the intent of the article was clear.
"The magazine wanted to look at the success of Oakland County and to understand how the county arrived at this point in the Detroit region's evolution. L. Brooks Patterson's long and visible tenure as the highest-ranking Oakland leader is at the center of that story," she said.
Detroit has received national attention recently, ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the most dangerous cities in the country five years in a row, while Oakland County has continuously been recognized for outstanding leadership.
In November, Governing magazine awarded Patterson, along with eight others, Public Official of the Year, an award he will accept when he travels to Washington D.C next month.
"We don't have problems in Oakland County they do in Detroit – our retirement and pension funds are well funded," he said. "We also have $400 million in the bank."
Part of accomplishing a balanced budget was Patterson's creation of a three-year rolling budget, the first of its kind in the nation that has helped balance the budget through 2017.
Even with all the successes of Oakland County, no one in Detroit seems to want advice, he said.
"I have advice for Detroit, but they never ask, and they don't want our advice," he said.
As for another remark he made during a roast of a former employee who had moved to Kentucky - that was just a joke.
During his roast speech, Patterson said his former employee moved to Kentucky and saw a "I miss Detroit" bumper sticker. The employee broke the window, stole the radio and left a note - asking if the crime reminded them of Detroit.
"It's a joke. Get a sense of humor," he said. "I mean, come on, what good is it if you can't take a joke."
No matter what is said, Patterson said Oakland County has supported, and will continue to support Detroit.
"Look at the things we've done for Detroit," he said. "We will continue to support Detroit."
Patterson said his management style, the ways the county assists Detroit, regional success stories such as the Cobo Authority, and the county's major programs are all having a positive impact on the region.
"We are beyond disappointed that none of those in-depth discussions made it into the article for balance," he said. "We helped bail out Cobo and it's just beautiful."
Oakland County has supported funding for the Detroit Institute of Arts so the art collection is not lost.
"We support the DIA. It is something Oakland County residents appreciate and use," he said.
Patterson said the relationship between Oakland County and Detroit is an important one, and he looks forward to working with his longtime friend, Mayor Mike Duggan.
Patterson said he has known Duggan, elected Detroit Mayor in January, for years and considers him a friend and he refuses to let The New Yorker article interfere with the important relationship.
Duggan is among those who have called for an apology for the remarks.
"I want to remind Mayor Duggan of what I said at the Big 4 Luncheon at the Auto Show last week and these are my true feelings: I want to work with him, and I want to make sure that any project that he has that I can be supportive of to give me a call," Patterson said.
Patterson said as soon as the article was released his office began receiving calls. As soon as he saw the headline "Drop Dead, Detroit," he stopped reading it and will refuse to read anything associated with it.
"I did not know the article was going to be the way it was. They told me it was going to be an article about the contrast between Detroit and Oakland County," he said.
"They painted me like I was a king sitting on my chariot and bashing Detroit and had I have known the article would have been headlined 'Drop dead Detroit,' I would have never participated. It's just ridiculous, and the article was an unbalanced hatchet job."
Patterson reiterates, an apology will not happen.
"That comment was made decades ago and I have long since apologized," he said. "She made it seem like I just made them which I didn't."
During her trip, Williams followed Patterson for days to speak with him and his staff about the ways Oakland County has assisted Detroit and regional success stories.
"None of that ever made it into the article, said Patterson.
Patterson said he supports projects in Detroit when they benefit Oakland County, and a successful Detroit benefits the entire region.
"OK—sometimes I make bad jokes," he said. "It's my sense of humor I guess. I'm going to be more careful about what I say from now on."
Williams said it's been fascinating to watch the responses unfold locally and to see Michiganians continue to address the question of leadership and public discourse in the Detroit area.
The Detroit region is unequivocally one of the most interesting places she has ever visited as a journalist, and the city's decline and attempt to rise is a major American story, she added.
"I'm eager to see what happens," she said. "Metropolitan Detroiters have made an art of parsing local politics, so I'm not surprised that they'd be interested in the legacy of one of the region's most powerful leaders, especially at such a pivotal time for Detroit."
Staff writer covering Independence Township and Clarkston area.