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Commentary

Milliken puts principle before Republican party

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William Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, and a man who has the Republican Party woven into his DNA, is announcing today his choice for President.

He will vote for Hillary Clinton. There are those who have said for years that Milliken is no longer a real Republican. They have called him a RINO – Republican in Name Only.

That’s what they said when he endorsed Democrat John Kerry for president a dozen years ago. He endured a lot of nasty comments then, and his longtime friend, former U.S. Senator Bob Griffin, was furious. My guess is that the criticism will be a lot more muted this year, since two former Republican presidents and many other party elders have made it clear they won’t back Trump.

But if you believe that Bill Milliken is not really a Republican, you’d be wrong. He has been a strong supporter and defender of Rick Snyder, and over the years, has backed many other Republicans in state and local races.

But he believes in something other than just winning elections. When Milliken was first elected to the state senate in 1960, Republicans were more likely to be in favor of CiviI Rights than Democrats.

That was a legacy of a proud heritage stemming back to Abraham Lincoln, Milliken, like his contemporary from Grand Rapids, the future President Gerald Ford, would go on to be firmly pro-choice and a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

Both men had strong wives who would themselves become popular public figures. Milliken won three terms as governor, years marked by clean government, bi-partisan cooperation, and a dedication to Michigan’s environment.

That was an era when you had some liberal Republicans and some conservative Democrats, and when the slogan was “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Making fun of a candidate’s looks or attacking them on religious grounds was inconceivable.

Had he wanted to go on to the U.S. Senate or a cabinet post, he almost certainly could have. But he did not. He wanted to be governor, and then to go home to Traverse City, where he quietly served on boards and advised politicians he respected behind the scenes, and lived a normal life.

Years ago, I asked him why he stayed in the Republican Party. He told me he felt the best thing he could do was fight to return it to the principles for which he’d always stood. Those were, as he said today, “an abiding concern for tolerance, civility and equality.”

Milliken said today he was saddened and dismayed that Republicans have chosen a candidate “who has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not embrace those ideals.”

A while ago, I had breakfast with Congressman Sandy Levin, who lost two close battles for governor to Milliken in the 1970s. I asked if that had been the biggest disappointment of his career. He said yes, but that it had been lessened by the fact that he lost to one of the best and most decent men in politics.

Bill Milliken is 94 now, and may not live to see many more elections. But I’d bet his biggest regret is that today there are so few people in the party he loved who stand for the things he always has.

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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