Democrats flip Oakland board as county trends blue
Pontiac — Call it anti-Trump sentiment, changing demographics or simply part of a Michigan “blue wave."
Whatever the label, it hit Oakland County hard Tuesday night, taking out four seats traditionally held by Republican candidates on the county Board of Commissioners.
The result? For the first time in a half-century, the county board will have a majority of Democratic commissioners, in a shift that political and demographic experts say highlights suburban resistance to the president as well as Oakland County's gradual shift away from its longtime status as a Republican stronghold.
Going into the election, there were 14 Republican commissioners and 7 Democrats. Beginning Jan. 1, the panel will consist of 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans.
How that will play out in board resolutions, committee appointments and, of course, county budgets remains to be seen over the next two years. But it is expected it could set the table for future disputes – and maybe vetoes – from County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, the dean of Republican politics in Oakland County, who is used to unanimously approved budgets.
Patterson, who has worked only with GOP-controlled boards since his first election in 1992, was philosophical Wednesday.
“The results of Tuesday’s election were not unexpected,” he said. “My administration has always reached across the aisle, especially at budget time, to pass a bipartisan, balanced, three-year budget. We will continue to do so.
“I look forward to working with the new board to continue my administration’s priorities of protecting Oakland County taxpayers with a balanced, multi-year budget, a AAA-bond rating, and a healthy fund balance."
The part-time commissioner positions, which pay $35,422 a year with health benefits and mileage, require attendance at two full board meetings a month and numerous committee meetings.
“This is exciting, a new day for Oakland County,” said David Woodward, D-Royal Oak the outspoken chairman of the Democratic caucus who is expected to be named the new board chairman by party colleagues.
Woodward credited an “awesome group of candidates” with making the difference for Democrats in Tuesday's election.
He also noted that countywide seats such as prosecutor, treasurer, clerk and water resources commissioner – all traditionally won by Republicans in Oakland County – have gone to Democrats over the past decade.
Woodward said as election returns came in Tuesday, long-held Republican seats on the county board fell to Democrats.
Hugh D. Crawford, R-Novi, was defeated by Novi City Councilwoman Gwen Markham. Commissioner Wade Flemming, R-Troy, in his fourth year on the board representing parts of Troy, Clawson and Royal Oak, was defeated by Penny Luebs, former Clawson mayor and city council member.
Commissioner Tom J. Berman, R-Bloomfield Hills, lost his bid for re-election after serving one term to newcomer Kristen Nelson. And the retirement of popular vote-getter William Dwyer, R-Farmington Hills, provided Democrat William Miller an opportunity as he defeated ex-Farmington mayor and councilman Bill Galvin for Dwyer's old post.
"We will have Democrats on the board who are eager to make Oakland County more progressive on repairing our roads, creating job programs and protecting our water," Woodward said. "We look forward to working together — Democrats and Republicans — for the good of the county."
One of the Republicans remaining on the board, 18-year veteran Robert Hoffman of Rose Township, won an easy re-election Tuesday but said other GOP commissioners lost support among voters unhappy with President Donald Trump's divisive style.
“I think this boils down to a lot of people being upset with Trump,” Hoffman said. “If he would have toned it down a bit some of this might not have happened. We knew some districts, including these, were in play, and I suspect changing demographics played a role, but Trump did not help.”
Democrats in statewide races also did well in Oakland County, including Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, who carried the county with 57.1 percent of the vote compared with 40.5 percent for Republican Bill Schuette. Four years ago, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder carried Oakland County with 55 percent of the vote on his way to re-election.
David Dulio, an Oakland University political science professor, said Tuesday's results illustrated the president's impact locally, as well as a longer-term shift toward Democrats in the state's second most-populous county.
“It’s an example of how Oakland County is changing — the demographics in those cities are changing and with it new political views,” Dulio said. "But it is also a reverberation of the midterm Trump effect being felt all along the ballot.
“The enthusiasm of the Democratic side is not to be denied,” he said. ‘While Democratic victories nationally were mixed — there was no blue wave sweeping the nation — but there was some flooding in Michigan and as this and some state races show, Oakland County could be at the epicenter.”
Dulio cited Tuesday's high voter turnout rate — 64 percent — as resulting at least partly from new voters wanting to send a message to Trump.
Suburban voters, especially women, turned out and voted “to send the president a message,” Dulio said. “It was just felt stronger in some areas more than others.”
The diversification of parts of Oakland County is a factor in Democrats' increasing electoral success there, said Kurt Metzger, founder and director of Data Driven Detroit, which analyzes the impact of demographics.
"You have seen increased African-American movement into West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills, etc., Troy, Bloomfield Hills, Novi, etc. have seen increasing numbers of Asian population of numerous ethnicities, combined with large Chaldean numbers and a northward movement of the Jewish population," Metzger said.
"While this will continue to drive the county bluer, I believe this election was unique, in the fact that these are the suburban areas with the educated white women that turned against Trump and the Republican party," he said. "I believe this shift, even without a straight-ticket (voting) option, helped Democrats."