All eyes on Bouchard as GOP seeks Patterson successor
Should he decide to run, experts say Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard would have an inside track to the Republican nomination to replace outgoing Executive L. Brooks Patterson.
Patterson announced Tuesday he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer and will not seek re-election next year to an eighth term as head of Michigan’s second largest county.
Republicans mourned the news but are actively recruiting candidates for what is poised to be a highly competitive race that already includes Democrats Andy Meisner, the county treasurer, and county Board of Commissioners Chairman Dave Woodward, who had planned to challenge Patterson if he ran again but now have an easier path to election.
Oakland County GOP Chairman Rocky Raczkowski said Patterson’s health announcement made for a “sad day,” but he expressed confidence the party will field a strong candidate for 2020.
Raczkowski told The Detroit News he talked with Patterson two or three weeks ago, “and he basically let me know what he was thinking so that we could get a heads-up on starting to recruit and work toward filling the spot for 2020.”
Four individuals have expressed interest in running, Raczkowski said. While he wouldn’t name names, “all four would be extremely well qualified," he said.
Bouchard declined to speculate on his own political future, telling The News that the focus in the “near future” should be “appreciation for Brooks and prayers for him and his family.”
The Oakland County Republican acknowledged he has been fielding calls about his interest in replacing Patterson and noted that Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel are former sheriffs.
“Those decisions, I think I and other people have plenty of time to worry about,” Bouchard said.
Respect for Patterson aside, “people don’t love the fact that one election gets over and people immediately start campaigning for another that is two years away?” he noted.
It may be a couple months before any formal candidate announcements are made because would-be Republican successors are likely to seek Patterson’s blessing before launching a campaign, Raczkowski said.
“We want to treat this basically as a transition — a peaceful and positive transition of power to continue Oakland County down the right path, and not a Wayne County takeover.”
Other GOP hopefuls
Former U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, could be a formidable candidate should be decide to run for county executive, but he is also considering another run for Congress and a potential rematch against Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly.
Longtime campaign consultant Stu Sandler said he had not talked to Bishop about his possible interest in the county executive post but said “he’d be a good candidate” if he jumped in.
“Today is kind of a day to put Brooks in your prayers,” Sandler said Tuesday afternoon.
Other Republicans who mentioned as possibilities to seek the post include local officials like Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett, who briefly ran for Congress in 2014; state Sen. Ruth Johnson of Holly; and a slew of former lawmakers, including former Sen. Mike Kowall of White Lake, who is now working for the county.
Bouchard would be a strong candidate for Republicans because he has consistently won sheriff elections in the increasingly Democratic county, said GOP pollster Steve Mitchell.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton narrowly won Oakland County in 2016, but Bouchard and Patterson both won re-election that year — Bouchard by a larger margin of 18 percentage points to Patterson's 7.5 points. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer easily won Oakland last fall.
“I think that if Mike Bouchard gets in the race, if he doesn’t clear the (GOP) field, he will beat the field pretty badly,” Mitchell said. “Mike is the real big name left in Oakland County politics now. He’s the last surviving countywide officer.”
The question for Bouchard will be whether he wants to risk his job security as sheriff, said GOP strategist John Sellek. "He could be sheriff probably forever," Sellek said.
Some of the Republicans already considering a run are “very well-known individuals that are strong fiscal conservatives” and would carry on Patterson’s legacy of low taxes but strong economic development, Raczkowski said.
The potential field includes “some names that would be very popular in Oakland County,” not only with Republicans, but with independents and even moderate Democrats, he said.
The size of the GOP field could depend on Bouchard’s decision, Sellek said.
“If Bouchard runs, probably nobody challenges him in the primary. If Bouchard doesn’t run, then it looks like the 2020 Democratic primary for president,” he said, suggesting a large field.
Bouchard is a former state lawmaker who ran for governor in 2010 but finished fourth in the GOP primary won by Rick Snyder. He also ran for U.S. Senate in 2006 but lost to incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the general election.
Former state Rep. Chuck Moss, R-Birmingham, called Patterson a “great man” and agreed there will be significant interest in replacing him.
“This will probably bring a lot of people out,” Moss said. “I can tell you right now I’m not a candidate.”
The county has gone blue in recent years, but the former lawmaker questioned whether that was the result of wave election dynamics or a permanent shift.
“It’s certainly not the monolithic, assumed Republican structure it once was, that’s for sure," Moss said.
Democrats see opportunity
For Democrats, Patterson’s pending departure presents an opportunity to reinforce the party’s newfound power in Oakland County.
Woodward, who is running for county executive, chairs the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, where Democrat now have their first majority since 1972. Meisner is in his third term as county treasurer and has long been considered a rising star in the party.
Both are strong candidates, Mitchell said.
In the event Patterson could not complete his term, the county board would have a chance to name a replacement, which could give Woodward the benefit of incumbency status heading into 2020, he said.
“Andy is such a strong campaigner and such a good politician that even if the commission selects Woodward, I think that Meisner would have the opportunity to beat him because he has a countywide name identification that Woodward does not have at this point,” Mitchell said.
Patterson made clear he intends to finish out his term, but his office announced a succession plan in the event it is not possible.
If a vacancy were to occur, Chief Deputy County Executive Gerald Poisson would serve as executive until the board appointed a successor. If the board did not do so within 30 days, a special election would be held at a later date.