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“It’s overwhelming and it’s humbling at the same time,” Dave Coulter said, less than 24 hours after being appointed Oakland County Executive. “And yet, I’m mostly excited to get to work on the policies that I have long championed, and I am honored to be able to be the person to begin the transition in Oakland County to a more progressive, inclusive and collaborative government.”
While it is historic that Dave Coulter is one of the first openly LGBTQ countywide officeholders in Oakland, what is equally historic is that on Aug. 16 he became the county’s first Democratic County Executive since that position was created in 1974. Further, as a result of the 2018 elections, Democrats hold a majority on the board of commissioners for the first time in more than 40 years.
The two weeks of political jockeying that followed the death of L. Brooks Patterson finally ended with Coulter’s appointment. And while the appointment was unexpected by some, he is not only an experienced politician with ties to county government, Coulter also made clear that he would not seek election to the position in 2020.
Coulter’s career in elective office began in Oakland, well before serving as mayor of Ferndale. A county commissioner from 2002 to 2010, Coulter was the Democratic minority leader for most of that time, and one of two LGBTQ county commissioners in the state for his first two terms — the other being Chris Swope who was elected as Ingham County Commissioner in 2000 and reelected in 2002. He said he looks back fondly on his time there.
“I learned so much about local government there, and I took a lot of what I learned from Oakland County to Ferndale,” Coulter said. First, he said, was the value of creating a multi-year budget to better anticipate challenges and avoid crisis management.
“The other thing I learned from Oakland County, is that although I disagreed with a lot of the things Brooks did, I never disagreed that he hired really smart, capable people to work with him, and I tried to take that philosophy to Ferndale as well,” Coulter said. “Hire good people and let them do their jobs. That has become my management style. And it works.”
Getting to Work
Coulter said that he has two immediate priorities: staff and budget. Less than a day after his appointment, Coulter was already focused and in command. He’s asked Hillarie Chambers, chief of staff to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, to head up the transition team. With just 10 days to announce his deputy executives and a number of other appointees, the clock is ticking.
Next up, there is the approval of the budget. That must happen by the end of September. Coulter said he needs to review the budget and be confident that it maintains the County’s AAA bond rating. He explained its significance very simply: great ideas require sound financial planning. To emphasize this point, he posed some rhetorical questions:
“You can have all the great policies you want, but how are you going to pay for them? How’s it going to work? I’ve seen a lot of good ideas fail because they weren’t executed well or they weren’t funded well. There’s no shortage of things I want to do, but do we have the right resources and the right talent in place to actually execute them? So that’s why those two things are sort of the foundation of doing everything else.”
2018: The Blue Wave Hits Oakland County
For those following last year’s election, it’s evident that Coulter’s appointment is not the start of a progressive movement in county government but is made possible with the new-as-of-2018 Democratic majority — despite having a former Republican county executive whose veto pen loomed large.
“I’m really encouraged and excited,” Coulter said. “Many of the things they’ve advanced are things we’ve done in Ferndale and things I wanted to do when I was on the Board.”
He also lauded Commissioner Penny Luebs on the effort she recently spearheaded: a non-binding resolution in support of amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBTQ people.
“I couldn’t be more excited about that,” Coulter said of the resolution. “Frankly, I am supportive of the kind of progressive vision they have displayed as well as their willingness to be collaborative partners with other counties and cities in the region. There’s a lot more we can do to lift our whole region up together.”
While Coulter said he could not yet address questions on future policies that he would champion, such as countywide LGBTQ protections, he did issue the following guarantee: “As I did as mayor, I will fight for equality for all of our residents and non-discrimination policies that guarantee equal rights for all of our residents.”
A Unifying Leader
Whether one would characterize the two weeks preceding Coulter’s appointment as a chess match or a free-for-all, most would agree Coulter stayed above the fray — likely because few even thought of him as a contender. After all, he did announce his bid for state representative in July. Some have chafed that Coulter neither applied nor interviewed for the position, which was not a requirement. He explained.
“I did not apply because I did not campaign or seek this position,” Coulter said. “And at the time of the applications, Dave Woodward did apply and I was supportive of him being appointed, so there was no reason for me to even think about it. It wasn’t until Thursday that I found out that Dave … could rescind his resignation and rejoin the board and that sort of changed the equation politically.”
Woodward had rejoined when it became clear the 10-10 board would not be able to find a candidate agreeable to everyone. It wasn’t until the Democrats had regained the majority that Coulter said they approached him.
In Coulter’s words, the Democrats said, “’Your name has been floated as someone who might be a unifying leader that everyone could rally around, and would you be interested?’ That didn’t happen until Thursday. And my response was, ‘I don’t want to join this battle. I don’t want to fight for this. But if you all believe in a united fashion — at least united Democrats — that I could serve in that role and you would be supportive, then I would be open to that.’ That’s how it came about.”
As for Coulter’s plans beyond 2020, he addressed that, too. Last month, Coulter launched his campaign for state representative for Michigan’s 27th House District. With the 2020 primary election just one year away, Coulter said he’s not certain where that stands.
“I have to evaluate that,” he said. “That’s what I was campaigning for — not county exec. And that’s what I had begun to do. I don’t know today if it’s possible to focus on both those things. You know, politicians run for office while they’re in office all the time, but my first priority has to be Oakland County government. If a state rep. race proves to be too much of a distraction, I won’t do it. In a short amount of time, I’m going to be thinking about whether that’s still possible.”
A New Day
Among the comments Coulter made immediately following his appointment was this: “I may not have been your first choice, or second choice or third choice, but I know that you all came here to put the interests of Oakland County first, and so do I.”
He elaborated for this interview.
“That was directed at my Republican friends, because I get it. You didn’t want to vote for me today. That’s fine. I know you, and I know you’re here to do the right thing. And I think at the end of the day when the hurt feelings are over and the passions subside, then we can work together. Because we did it when I was there. And we can do it again.”
Conciliatory words aside, Coulter wasn’t shy about envisioning what the future may hold for Oakland County with him at the helm and his colleagues on the Democratic-majority board of commissioners.
“Non-binding policy positions can’t be vetoed,” Coulter noted, in reference to Luebs’ resolution. “But I want to do more than that. I want to change policy. And we couldn’t do that until this day. That’s what’s so critical. Now we don’t just have to just give out opinions, we can change policy in Oakland County. That’s why it’s a new day. And Dave Woodward and the Board have an advocate and an ally in the executive’s office. And that just opens up a lot of possibilities for us.”