Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson apologized Thursday for telling reporters he would sooner "join the Klan" than join a group of Metro Detroit CEOs he's accused of working to "snatch" businesses from Oakland County to aid Detroit.
Patterson met with members of Oakland County's chamber of commerce at county offices, then spoke with the media afterward. When one reporter asked if he would consider joining the regional CEOs group, Patterson snapped: "Oh, hell no. I'd rather join the Klan."
Others who attended the meeting declined to speak with reporters afterward.
Hours later, Patterson walked back his remark.
"Sometimes when I'm passionate about a topic, I choose sharp words and purposely engage in hyperbole to get my point across," he said in a news release.
"Today, the words I chose offended a lot of people. I apologize for the poor choice of words."
Patterson's remark sparked criticism from Detroit community leaders.
Shirley R. Stancato, who heads a Detroit-based racial justice organization, condemned Patterson’s remark Thursday as “appalling.”
“At this time in our history we need leaders who are going to bring us together, not divide us. Particularly divide us by race,” said Stancato, president and CEO of New Detroit Inc. “In our community race is always the elephant in the living room. To say, as a leader in our community that he’d rather join a hate group that has historically focused on minorities and Jews in a negative way is unbelievable to me.”
Stancato said in making the comment, Patterson is closing out his career the way he started it.
“He hasn’t changed,” she said, noting Patterson, an attorney, represented the National Action Group, which led an unsuccessful fight in the 1970s against court-ordered busing aimed at desegregating Pontiac schools.
“He’s not the kind of leader we need in our community as we work toward regional support and regional cooperation,” she said. “It’s important for leaders to stand up and voice how they feel about this. Business and community leaders need to say ‘this is not acceptable from a leader in our community. We’re not going to stand for it.’”
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, said Patterson needs to focus on being a partner rather than taking actions that divide.
“While an apology for such callous, racist, divisive remarks is appropriate, it really typifies a specific problem that we have in this region. That is, trying to bring people together,” Anthony told The Detroit News. “It is not Detroit versus the suburbs or any of that. It is Detroit and the suburbs. It is Detroit and the region.”
Anthony said Patterson has been resistant to regional cooperation, namely efforts to improve transit.
“It is unfortunate that we still have these situations. I hope somebody sends L. Brooks the memo that the old days are over,” he said. “Instead of building walls, let’s build a bridge for this region. Let’s open the doorway for cooperation.”
Thursday's remark from Patterson is the latest in a string of controversial comments by the longtime county executive, who was first elected in 1992.
In 2014, Patterson stirred a backlash when he made critical comments about Detroit in an interview with the New Yorker magazine. "Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive," he said. "Therefore, I'm called a Detroit basher. The truth hurts, you know. Tough (expletive)."
The remarks led to calls from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others for Patterson to apologize. He didn't apologize, but did issue a statement expressing "regret."
On Thursday, Duggan's office declined to comment.
Patterson did apologize in 2013 after likening then-state GOP House Speaker Jase Bolger to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
The CEOs group, headed by DTE Energy Co. CEO Gerry Anderson, has been in talks with Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah to develop a private-sector entity that would expand the region's business attraction efforts.
The informal, unnamed group of influential CEOs meets quarterly at DTE headquarters to identify areas it can affect with funding and leadership: transit, job training, public place-making and economic developmentacross southeast Michigan.
But in a recent letter to leaders for commerce chambers belonging to the Oakland Chamber Network, Patterson accused the group of attempting to “snatch” Oakland County businesses to rebuild the Motor City.
"You don't have to read between the lines, it is clear what is happening: these self-appointed saviors for southeast Michigan are in the process of forming an 'economic partnership' to direct business investments to the City of Detroit," Patterson wrote in the letter. "They will have no hesitation about coming into your community and snatch business leads in the righteous cause of 'rebuilding Detroit.'"
Late Thursday, Anderson and Baruah issued a statement to "clarify the facts" regarding the goal of the regional CEO group.
The chamber, they said, reached out to Anderson more than two years ago to begin work on enhancing the 11-county region's approach to business attraction and marketing to out of state and international companies.
The CEO group and chamber board at Baruah's urging, they said, formed a new standalone entity earlier this year to focus on "raising and deploying additional resources for business attraction and marketing for the entire Southeast Michigan region." The new entity will build upon the chamber's existing program.
"It will never engage in assisting a company (to) relocate from one part of our region to another. Its ethic will be that when one part of the region wins, all in the region win," the statement reads. "This new entity will be exclusively focused on driving new businesses from outside the region to locate new jobs within the region."
It is intended, they added, that the new organization have representation from the 11-county region, as well as representatives from the greater business community.
"We are conducting a nationwide CEO search for the most qualified business attraction and marketing executive to lead our region in attracting businesses from outside the region to Southeast Michigan," they wrote.
Mark Hicks contributed.