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Former Attorney General Frank Kelley pushes on despite tragic loss

Jack Lessenberry

If you happened to be listening to Stateside last week, you may have heard me talking about a new biography, The People’s Lawyer, which I co-wrote with former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.

While the words are mine, the story is his.

I wanted to talk about it today, not to plug the book, but for a couple reasons.

First of all, I think his story shows what a stupid and destructive idea term limits have been.

Many people know Frank Kelley was our state’s attorney general for 37 years, longer than anyone has held such a job in any state, but what you may not know is that prior to his taking office in 1961, nobody had been Michigan’s attorney general longer than five years.

Kelley decided to make a career of it. He completely transformed the office.

Earlier attorney generals had been mainly reactive; they’d defend the state against lawsuits, and wait for the governor to make them a judge.

Kelley’s father idolized Harry Truman, who saw himself as the people’s lobbyist. Frank decided he’d be the people’s lawyer.

Kelley may have been the first state AG to establish entire divisions dedicated to consumer and environmental protection. He was constantly after utilities to roll back rates.

Inspired by two men he knew, John and Robert Kennedy, he fought for civil rights and against organized crime. President Clinton praised Kelley for helping win the Tobacco Master Settlement agreement, which has meant billions in revenue for Michigan.

A Democrat, Kelley worked with a Republican governor, William Milliken, to get Michigan’s landmark Consumer Protection Act passed, something that has been sadly gutted since.

None of that would have happened if Kelley had been limited to eight years, as state officials are now.

His successors, Republican and Democrat, have spent much of their time running for governor. Except for one early fling running for the Senate, Kelley was content to stay where he was, the eternal general.

He finally retired four years before term limits would have forced him out. When he left in 1999, newspapers noted that in all his years, there had never been a hint of scandal. Kelley co-founded a successful legislative and lobbying firm, Kelley Cawthorne, with former Republican House Speaker Dennis Cawthorne.

Telling his life story has reenergized Frank. Though he will be 91 on New Year’s Eve, he has been eager to run around the state, talking about his book.

We had dinner Thursday night, after he mesmerized a group of Irish lawyers. He told me he felt extremely lucky, in large part because his wife Nancy, who was in her sixties, took such good care of him.

On Saturday morning she got up, walked into the kitchen, and collapsed from a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

She died yesterday.

Last night he said he wished there was a magic bullet that could make him feel better, but that he knew there wasn’t. He also told me that he still wanted to appear in public and talk about his career.

“Part of me always wanted to be an entertainment lawyer, and the show must go on,” he said.

What he really hopes is that his book inspires some youngster to go into public service. I know they mostly read their phones these days, but somehow I feel it will.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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