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Longtime state, Oakland Co. politician Bill Bullard dies from COVID, cancer complications

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Bill Bullard Jr., an Oakland County Republican political stalwart for four decades, died Friday night from complications of COVID-19 and cancer, friends and former colleagues said. He was 77.

"He was a fighter," said Anthony Noble, a longtime friend and the newly sworn-in White Lake Township clerk who had chosen Bullard as his deputy. "He was a warrior."

Bullard had an extensive career in county and state politics. He was known to be an effective statesman, a mentor to younger legislators and had the ability to work with Democrats across the aisle, former associates said. While serving as a state representative and senator for over 20 years, he sponsored more than 170 bills that were signed into law, according to his bio for the Lansing lobbying firm Strategic Communications Solutions, where he was a partner after leaving office.

Oakland County Elections Commission with Treasurer Andy Meisner, Chief Probate Judge Linda Hallmark and Clerk Bill Bullard in 2012. Bullard died Friday from complications with COVID-19 and cancer.

"Bill was always easy to work with and one of those Republicans that didn’t let partisanship stand in the way of progress," former Gov. James Blanchard said in an email. "He was a good friend to all he served within the state capital."

Bullard had a passion for public service. Statesmanship was a business and a craft for him. He was chairman of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners after his tenure in Lansing. He began his public service in the late 1970s as supervisor of Highland Township. Bullard most recently was the Oakland County clerk/register of deeds until 2012.

"When I was first elected and in the Capitol, I felt incredible awe and gravitas because it was a special place to get to work there," said Chuck Moss, a former Republican state senator and incoming Oakland County commissioner. "I asked Bill who had worked there for years and years when that feeling goes away, and he looked at me and said: 'Never.' He was just a real professional public servant."

Much of Bullard's focus was in regards to cutting taxes during the Engler administration when he was chairman of the tax committee, said Rob Elhenicky, a partner at the multiclient lobbying firm Kelley Cawthorne and a "Bullard alum" who worked in his senate office during the 1990s.

Bullard was a lawmaker before Michigan adopted term limits, which meant long-term bipartisan relationships were important. He was effective at fostering those bonds, Noble said: "This was back before cellphones, when he would walk in together with a Democratic lawmaker from the other side of the aisle, and they would talk about family and friends. On key issues, they would work throughout these things to reach a common goal."

He was a strong communicator and an adept policymaker, said former Republican White Lake state Sen. Mike Kowall: "He was always three and four steps ahead of anybody else. He had a plan and knew where he wanted to be and other people to be, and it was a team effort."

Behind all of that success was that he was a good and well-liked person, Elhenicky said: "He was as comfortable in a bowling alley as he was in a country club. He gave the same attention and respect to the new page as he did the ranking member on the appropriations committee."

He loved life, friends said. His Mackinac Island parties were memorable. His golf outing fundraisers were so popular, they had to be held at two courses simultaneously.

"In the evening or at a restaurant in downtown Milford, you couldn’t go in a straight line without stopping," Kowall said. "Everybody wanted to talk to him."

He was a champion for underdogs. When a massage therapist was starting her own business, he invited her to come set up during one of his fundraisers to promote her business, Elhenicky said. A local band wrote Bullard a theme song to the tune of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al": "If you'll be my senator, I'll be your constituent," it went.

"He loved it and played it everywhere," Elhenicky recalled, "whether you wanted him to or not."

Bullard loved live music and sports. He bled blue as a University of Michigan undergraduate alumnus, Elhenicky said. He earned his law degree from the Detroit College of Law before the school was assimilated by Michigan State University.

Even after losing re-election to county clerk in 2012, Bullard continued serving his community. He operated a private law practice in addition to lobbying.

"He worked pro bono as a lawyer to help people," Noble said. "He did things in private. He was a lobbyist, not for the money, but because it was the right thing to do for people, and he kept it quiet. He didn't want recognition for anything, he was a true giver."

Bullard leaves behind two daughters and a son. He also had a "coaching tree with many branches," Elhenicky said. He greeted former staff as if they were family, and stayed in touch.

"He'd done everything and been everywhere," Morris said. "I always relied on him to give good advice and how to handle all sorts of situations."

He got the nickname "Bulls" from those who worked with him for his ability to fight for policy. When it came to his fight with cancer, though, he kept it largely quiet except to family and close friends.

Bullard's ability to put people before politics will be missed at a time of great partisan tensions, Noble said: "If we had more people like him in politics, the world would be a better place."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble