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Republican maneuvers to keep control in Oakland County

There are rumors that powerhouse Oakland County Executive and outspoken Republican L. Brooks Pattersonmay not run again in 2016, leaving Republicans in a bind.

In presidential-election years, like 2016, higher turnout typically benefits Democrats while lower turnout-gubernatorial years tend to lean Republican (one very good reason why, although Michigan has gone for the Democrat in the past six presidential cycles, the state currently has a Republican governor, attorney general and secretary of state.)

In recent years, Oakland County has been gradually trending blue, particularly in presidential years.

If you can’t win the game, change the rules

So, what are Republicans to do? How are they going to keep control of the county executive seat?

“The goal is very simple and straightforward - to move the election from the presidential to the gubernatorial year,” says state Senator Dave Robertson, Republican chair of the state Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee.

Robertson, along with three other Republican senators – all from Oakland County - has sponsored a bill that would move county executive elections in Oakland County to gubernatorial-year elections (the cycle that’s better for the GOP).

Robertson says the purpose is to align the Oakland County executive elections with the executive elections in neighboring Wayne and Macomb counties.

And, it’s true, Oakland is an anomaly in that all the countywide races go on the same ballot in the same year - sheriff, prosecutor, treasurer, register of deeds are all voted on at the same time.

But does it really make sense to split up that ballot to make it just as confusing as your neighbors?

Deja Vu

This is not the first time Republicans have used the legislative process to try and keep control in Oakland County. The GOP-led state Legislature passed a bill in the 2011 “lame-duck” session to let Republicans go back and re-draw Oakland County commission lines more to their liking.

As we here at It’s Just Politics reported back in 2012 (after fellow-Republican Governor Snyder had signed the legislation):

Republicans all along contended that the reason for the new law was to save taxpayers money. Democrats, and many pundits, said it was pure politics: that the GOP changed the rules so that Republican dominance on the County Board wouldn’t be challenged. But, this kind of claim is always hard to prove. Hard to prove… unless you have emails.

This week, emails between Republican Oakland County officials and GOP lawmakers were released after the Oakland County Democratic Party filed a Freedom of Information Act. The emails appear to show officials in the offices of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s office and state Representatives – primarily Rep. Eileen Kowall– basically plotting and trying to find a rationale to kick this redistricting process back over to the County Commission where Republicans would control it.

In one email, Rep. Kowall wrote, “I guess it would also help to have (a) legitimate explanation as to why we waited until now, after redistricting plans have been submitted, to take these bills up.” She also wrote, “The quicker things move the better, ’cause it’s gonna be ugly.”

Why Oakland?

As we noted back in 2012:

One of the reasons why Oakland County is one of the best political shows in Michigan… is because the county is changing. A quarter century ago, Oakland County was clearly dominantly Republican. Now it’s basically fifty-fifty. And, as the political complexion of the county has changed, the fighting has gotten fierce.

Furthermore, Republicans feel their experience running affluent Oakland County for all these years is a real GOP success story.

They’re not willing to give it up without a fight, regardless of the county’s turning-blue political and demographic trends (which, by the way, might not be such a contest if Democrats were better at turning out their voters in non-presidential years).

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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