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The departure of longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has set off a scramble as Democrats aim to take over a GOP stronghold and fellow Republicans seek to defend it. 

After seven terms leading Michigan’s second largest county, Patterson said in March he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and would not seek reelection.

Democrats are increasingly optimistic they can win the top county post in 2020 because of shifting political allegiances and changing demographics. Republicans are hoping to keep the seat by recruiting a well-known candidate and running on the county's record of economic prosperity under GOP rule. 

In the last election, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won Oakland County handily, while Democratic presidential candidates have prevailed in the county since 1996. At the local level last year, Democrats won control of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for the first time since 1972. 

While the politics surrounding President Donald Trump has driven some of the change in the county, the commission's new Democratic majority and Patterson's exit by the end of 2020 offer an opportunity to further "reset the table," said Vaughn Derderian, chairman for the Oakland County Democratic Party.

"Without Patterson himself on the ballot, Republicans are going to have to work to get that seat in a way they haven’t had to in a really long time," Derderian said. 

The county’s conservative residents and Republican leaders blame the shift in part on the expected swing of the midterm political pendulum and in part on residents who moved into the area with their old political allegiances in tow. 

“In the old days, even 10 years ago, Macomb County was a trusted Democratic county and Oakland County was a trusted Republican county and now there’s been a complete flip-flop,” said Rocky Raczkowski, Oakland County GOP chairman.

The shift mimics trends across the state as rural and northern areas are moving strongly to the Republican side and urban areas are becoming more Democratic, said John Sellek, owner of public relations firm Harbor Strategic and a former campaign strategist for Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette. 

"But I would still call Oakland a battleground," Sellek said. While Democrat Hillary Clinton won Oakland in 2016 with 51% of the vote, Republican Sheriff Mike Bouchard won reelection the same year with 60% of the vote.

"The Oakland County voters do tend to take each race individually," Sellek said. 

Two Democratic candidates — County Board of Commissioners Chairman Dave Woodward and County Treasurer Andy Meisner — plan to run for the open position and have said they want to shed some of what they argue is Patterson’s bombastic avoidance of regionalism, mass transit and social programs.

Among Patterson’s potential Republican successors are Bouchard, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett, former Congressman Mike Bishop of Rochester, state Sen. Ruth Johnson of Holly and former Sen. Mike Kowall of White Lake.

None of the rumored GOP possibilities will confirm their candidacy yet. Political experts have said most hopefuls are waiting for Bouchard — the next longest-serving county official with high name recognition behind Patterson — to make a decision before solidifying their plans.

“We’ve got a big job ahead of us,” Raczkowski said. “And that job is one of education and one of appealing to the mass audience to let them know you are better off under a Republican executive than you are under Democrats.”

Transit emerges as issue

The Democratic candidates are emphasizing their stark leadership differences with Patterson, whose polemic quips sometimes have landed him in racially charged controversies.

Mass transit is a focus for Meisner and Woodward, who argue that Oakland County should be a leader in getting a regional system instead of throwing up roadblocks.

Patterson backed the formation of a regional transit authority, but has had problems with proposals to run and finance such a system. Among other things, he has argued there should be protections for taxpayers in communities that opt out of the system and that Oakland County was funding too much of the system while getting too few benefits. 

In 2016, a regional 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax increase ballot measure was defeated — losing overwhelmingly in Macomb and by 1,100 votes in Oakland, while Wayne and Washtenaw county voters approved it. Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel put it on the ballot but didn't campaign for it. 

An effort to put a new $5.4 billion, 1.5-mill regional tax hike proposal on the 2018 ballot fizzled after opposition from Patterson and Hackel.

Among his priorities for the region, Meisner emphasized diversity, regionalism and regional transportation, an initiative he said Patterson has blocked “for decades and decades.”

With a new county leader, other regional leaders may look more favorably on the plan for regional transit, he said.

“The places that are being really smart about this are looking at mobility really broadly across many modes of transportation,” Meisner said, referring to possible driver-less vehicles for mass transit.

Woodward said Oakland County has the ability and responsibility to push for more transit options.

“We’re in a position to do more and, frankly, if it can’t be done in Oakland County it can't be done anywhere,” Woodward said. “We’ve got more prosperity, more resources than anybody else.”

In parts of southern Oakland County, those policies may be welcomed. But the northern sections of the county and the surrounding region may not be as easily persuaded. 

Macomb residents may not be willing to pay more for transit options largely benefiting other communities, Hackel told The Detroit News.

“If you’re talking about basically running more fixed lines and all of the real assets that are going to be built upon are going to be in Detroit and we’re going to be paying for the QLine or a train to Ann Arbor, people in Macomb County are saying absolutely not,” he said. “Macomb County voters are not about to go down that path again.”

Continued regional transit efforts by Wayne County leaders and urban leaders in Oakland are essentially the “tail wagging the dog,” said Linda Stouffer, a 55-year-old coffee shop owner in Holly.

“People out here don’t want regional transit,” Stouffer said.

Shifting allegiances

Still, Oakland County Republicans have shifted on other issues Patterson adamantly opposed. In May, Oakland County GOP lawmakers parted with him by voting for a bipartisan no fault auto insurance reform, a measure that Patterson had long opposed because of compromises related to lifetime personal injury protection.

The political evolution could and should go further, county Democrats argue. It is long past time Oakland County leadership recognized the county’s changing demographics with more minorities and immigrants, and formed a government more reflective of the trends, Meisner and Woodward said.

With the change should come “culturally competent” policies from administration, recognizing differences in language and socioeconomic standing, Meisner said.

While Patterson’s administration excelled at fiscal management and economic development, it lagged in other areas, he said.

“Affordable housing, transit, health care, pay equity, poverty and homelessness — some of these areas have been very neglected,” Meisner said.

Patterson told The News this year that the county's changing voting trends resulted from Detroiters, overwhelmingly Democrats, who moved to the county “and brought their politics with them.”

Steve Mitchell, a Republican strategist and pollster living in West Bloomfield, agrees with Patterson, noting that migration out of Detroit in the past three decades and into areas like Southfield, Farmington Hills and Hazel Park has increased the liberal consensus in those areas.

Trump's personality also has irritated affluent, highly educated voters — precisely the kind that Oakland County is known for, Mitchell said.

Woodward countered that the shifting political allegiances were due to a change of heart among voters disgusted with the lack of civility in politics.

“It’s a simplistic way to explain your policies are being rejected by the voters,” Woodward said of Patterson’s theory.

Noelle Ramirez seems to be a case in point.

The 31-year-old Bingham Farms resident and Royal Oak native didn’t vote in the 2016 election, calling the decision between Trump and Clinton “a wash.” But she plans to head to the ballot box in November 2020 because of largely national social issues — health care, the cost of living and immigration policy.

“I feel a little uncertain still,” she said. “But I feel like I’m drifting a little more Democratic.”

Leaders need to be more inclusive, said Barnett, the Rochester Hills mayor who is considering running for executive. 

“Mayors that don’t embrace the diverse natures of their community are going to be left behind," Barnett said. "I think that’s happening in the reddest states and the bluest. Leadership is going to have to embrace that.”

But candidates should continue to embrace Patterson's fiscal conservatism and economic growth policies that helped Oakland County become one of Michigan's wealthiest counties, Mitchell said.

"They’re still going to vote for someone who offers a consistency of programs that we’ve seen under Brooks Patterson," he said.

In a divided county where Republicans hold the offices of executive and sheriff and Democrats control the seats of treasurer, clerk and prosecutor, it's not a given that voters' dislike of Trump will carry over into local elections, Mitchell said. 

"The executive race will not be impacted by the Trump election," he said. "Voters have shown huge swings in ticket splitting for these county offices.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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