Oakland Co. Exec Patterson says he has pancreatic cancer, won't run again

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson holds back tears as he announces he will not run for an eighth term as Oakland County Executive, due to being diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Waterford Township — Longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said Tuesday he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer and will not run for an eighth term.

"This is a tough one. I'm in treatment now," he said, vowing to fight the disease and return to work after a pre-planned vacation with family at an undisclosed "warm weather" location.

"This is not goodbye. This is just an announcement of a (expletive) hand of cards," said Patterson, at times appearing to choke up and fighting back tears.

He added: "I have every intention of coming back and finishing out my term" but said he would not seek re-election. His current term expires in 2020.

The prognosis for pancreatic cancer patients is different for each patient, depending on the type of pancreatic cancer and the stage when it's diagnosed. 

The one-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is about 20 percent, and the five-year survival rate is 7 percent, according to Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society and a medical oncologist and epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta.

According to the American Cancer Society, stage 4 means pancreatic cancer has spread to distant sites such as the liver, peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), lungs or bones. 

Patterson, a Republican who has been the county's top elected official since 1992, said in January he was undecided about whether to seek an eighth term next year.

“It depends on a lot of things,” Patterson said then. He said Tuesday he received his diagnosis on March 15.

Patterson, 80, who had only worked with GOP-controlled boards since he was elected in 1992, is working this year with a majority of Democratic county commissioners.

Several Democrats have been mentioned as possible candidates for Patterson's job in 2020, including county Treasurer Andy Meisner, who announced his campaign this month. County Commission Chairman Dave Woodward also has said he is considering a run.

Both were among more than 100 people, including Patterson's family, Sheriff Michael Bouchard, several judges and others who packed a conference room for Patterson's announcement. Several wiped away tears as Patterson spoke of his health and reflected on his seven terms as county executive and 16 years as the county prosecutor before that.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson kisses his daughter Mary Warner at the conclusion of a press conference on Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2019 at the L. Brooks Patterson Building in Waterford, Michigan. Patterson announced he will not run for an eighth term as Oakland County Executive, due to being diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer.

“I’ve known him for a really long time and my focus right now is praying for him and his family,” said Bouchard, a Republican. “... I know what a struggle it must be for them. He has devoted his life to Oakland County and I would like him to have a lot more time with his grandchildren.”

Other officials also offered support for Patterson.

"I'm saddened to hear about Brooks' health," said Meisner. "He has made serving Oakland County his life's work and his leadership has shaped nearly every element of our region. I stand ready to help him steward the county in the coming months and wish him peace and comfort."

Woodward said: "My thoughts and prayers are with Brooks and his family as he faces this new challenge. Despite political differences over the years, like just about everyone else in Oakland County, I respect L. Brooks Patterson's tremendous capacity to hang tough and give back as good as he gets."

Michael J. Gingell, Republican caucus chairman of the Oakland Board of Commissioners, said: "I'm saddened by the news today. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Patterson family. I have known Brooks for many years and know that he is a fighter and a great leader. I am confident he will continue to lead Oakland County in an exemplary manner and I am committed to working through this situation with him and his leadership team."

If a vacancy were to occur during Patterson's current term, his chief deputy executive, Gerald Poisson, would take over for 30 days as executive until the county board appointed a successor or called a special election. Poisson sat next to Patterson during the press conference and Patterson referred to him as the obvious choice to handle things in his absence. 

Patterson rose to prominence in the 1970s as a private attorney for an anti-busing organization, the National Action Group, which argued that the forced busing of suburban children to under-performing urban school systems was an "experiment in social engineering."

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling against Detroit's court-ordered busing plan that effectively ended busing efforts in Pontiac and elsewhere nationally to try to integrate urban schools with suburban children. 

In his decades-long political career, Patterson became known for his sense of humor and for making controversial remarks that sometimes landed him in hot water.

Last August, Patterson met with members of Oakland County's chamber of commerce at county offices, then spoke with the media afterward. When one reporter asked if he would consider joining the regional CEOs group, Patterson snapped:  "Oh, hell no. I'd rather join the Klan."

He apologized for the comment shortly afterward.

In 2014, Patterson stirred a backlash when he made critical comments about Detroit in an interview with the New Yorker magazine. "Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive," he said. "Therefore, I'm called a Detroit basher. The truth hurts, you know. Tough (expletive)."

The remarks led to calls from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others for Patterson to apologize. He didn't apologize, but did issue a statement expressing "regret."

Patterson did apologize in 2013 after likening then-state GOP House Speaker Jase Bolger to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

Patterson also has tangled with other Metro Detroit officials at times, opposing initiatives promoted by Detroit and Wayne County officials to pass a tax levy to fund a regional transit system.

“We had 20-some communities opt out of (the SMART system in the 1990s),” Patterson said at a luncheon with other regional leaders last April. “They don’t want to be taxed. Warren Evans is trying to bring them in against their will.”

At the conclusion of a press conference, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is given a standing ovation.

Evans, the Wayne County executive, offered his best wishes Tuesday: "Attempting to beat stage 4 pancreatic cancer is the ultimate fight, but if there is one thing about Brooks that we can all agree on, it's that he's a fighter and we will all be cheering him on."

Alisha Bell, chair of the Wayne County Commission, said she did not always agree with Patterson's politics but felt he has undeniably been Oakland County's champion.

"Brooks Patterson has been divisive on many regional issues and his rhetoric has sometimes been negative and hurtful," said Bell.

“Yet he has been very passionate about Oakland County, and the county has truly benefited from his strict financial discipline and leadership.I wish him well and pray for him during his battle with cancer.”

Patterson is no stranger to health setbacks. He was seriously injured in a car crash Aug. 10, 2012, in Auburn Hills, when a vehicle driven by a Royal Oak man turned in front of Patterson's car. The county executive's driver, James Cram, was paralyzed and Patterson was hospitalized for several weeks with multiple broken bones and injuries.

Cram died this month in a hospital from injuries related to the crash. 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel referred to the crash in comments Tuesday about Patterson's diagnosis.

 "Most people don't know it but he fought for his life in that traffic accident," Hackel said. "But this is even more of a challenge. My thoughts and prayers are with him."

As county executive, Patterson has presided over a series of budget surpluses and economic development projects, which he touted last month in his State of the County address.

Since 2004, Patterson said, his "Emerging Sectors" program has resulted in $5 billion in investment, the creation of 18,318 jobs and retention of 21,710 jobs. He said 1,821 patents had been filed in Oakland County, placing it in 2015 “ninth out of 3,100 counties nationwide.”

“If you want to be where innovation is, Oakland County is where you want to be,” he said.