A final lunch with L. Brooks Patterson

EDITOR’S NOTE: Capitol correspondent Tim Skubick has 50 years of experience covering L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive who died Aug. 3.

If you had to pick three words to describe Lewis Brooks Patterson, you’d say he was passionate, controversial, and funny, and his passion and humor often produced controversial trouble for the shoot-from-the-lip politician.

Love him or hate him, his magnetic personality filled the room, especially when he held a microphone and a captive audience.

Years ago, the capitol press corps’ thirst for a competitive match-up for state attorney general reached its zenith. For years, the GOP picked one sacrificial lamb after another to take on incumbent Democrat A.G. Frank Kelley.

So, when Mr. Patterson got in, everyone in town knew the race would be fun.

At one of the few debates they did, Mr. Kelley showed up having just received a hefty pay raise from the State Officers Compensation Commission, the board that sets pay rates for the top officials in state government. Mr. Kelley’s raise was somewhere around $10,000.

Mr. Patterson showed up with a suitcase in hand. At the right moment on stage, he opened it and showed the audience 10,000 smackers, and closed the deal indignantly, saying Mr. Kelley was taking that money from the taxpayers of Michigan.

It was great theater. The audience was rolling on the floor. The only person not rolling was you-know-who.

The stunt made a good story, but it made no difference in the race, as Mr. Patterson joined the host of other Republicans who tried but failed.

Years later, a rematch. At a celebrity roast in town, Mr. Kelley was anchoring the event and had the opportunity to introduce one of the roasters, none other than Mr. Patterson. Mr. Kelly got in a little dig, but when he turned the podium over to his former opponent, Mr. Patterson wasted little time getting even.

“You know what the difference is between a rectum and an a–hole?” he asked the stunned audience of lawmakers, lobbyists and correspondents. And then he went in for the kill … he stood next to Mr. Kelly and put his arm around his shoulder and delivered the punch line: “You cant put your arms around a rectum!”

Explosive laughter.

Mr. Kelley sat there again with a less-than-joyful expression on his face.

Everyone recalls his triumphant entrance at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce Mackinac Island gig as he came to the stage to do the “Big Four” confab with other Southeast Michigan leaders, including Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Mr. Patterson, decked out in a gangster-type outfit and accompanied by a phalanx of “bodyguards,” complete with shades, played like he was Kwame, and the joint went nuts, including His Honor the Mayor, who was noted for his own army of bodyguards and a wardrobe right out of GQ.

Suffice it to say, everyone whom Mr. Patterson touched can tell their own stories, as, much like the human heart, everyone has one.

As fate would have it, this reporter and Mr. Patterson discovered they vacationed in the same Florida location and, for eight years, “a two-hour lunch with Brooks” at a local fish joint was always on the vacation schedule.

But the one last April was different. Sitting under the canopy in the heat, waiting for him to show up, one pondered, what will he be like this time?

It was just weeks after the startling announcement that he had pancreatic cancer, which was yet another challenge heaped on top of his recovery from a near-death car accident years earlier.

All the trepidation and apprehension dissipated the moment he slowly got out of the car and into his wheelchair with a big smile. There was the wise crack — “We’ve got to stop meeting like this” — and, with that, you knew instantly it was the old Brooks. It would be fun, not a downer.

He was open about the diagnosis in an almost matter-of-fact sort of way. He recounted his first conversation with his doctor. In typical fashion, he did not beat around the bush.

“How much time do I have?” he hit the doctor right between the eyes.

“I don’t know,” the doc returned the volley. “Some guys go five years.”

“I’ll take it,” he shot back.

“It’s up to God,” the doctor put a point on the obvious.

The lunch went on as every insider political story between source and reporter you could imagine was kicked around, including his take on former governors, mayors, and other pols. His brain and insights were sharp. His wit was even sharper, and, when it was time to pay the bill, there was this:

“Brooks. You’re doing great. Keep that sense of humor and attitude. You’re going to make it. Hang in there, and let the Good Lord do the rest.”

He said he would fight the thing, though it was tough. But he stared death in the face once before and won, as the doctors gave him a 3% chance of living after the auto crash.

He beat the odds then, and, for the next four months, he was beating them again.

Until the Good Lord stepped in last Saturday morning at 5:30 a.m.

At that last Florida lunch fest, he labored back in the car, with a “good bye, Timmy, see ya next year.”

Followed by a “good-bye, Brooks, I’ll save a seat for ya, man.”