Michiganians remember Kelley: 'the people's attorney general'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Michigan's longest-serving attorney general, Frank Kelley, knew how to work a room, the state's former Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer recalled Saturday.

Kelley would shake every hand that was available and would often tell others that he liked to start "an election 100,000 handshakes ahead of the other guy," Brewer said.

"It's just classic retail politics," the former party chairman said. "It wasn't just an empty handshake. He would look you in the eye, shake your hand and engage with you. That's the kind of stuff that makes you a successful politician."

Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, left, and Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin.

And Kelley was successful. He was Michigan's attorney general for 37 years — from 1961 to 1999 — under five governors in the era mostly before term limits restricted office holders to a maximum of two, four-year terms. No prior attorney general had ever served longer than five years, said Jack Lessenberry, who co-wrote the longtime lawyer's life story.

Kelley's family announced his death at age 96 on Saturday. Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum.

Brewer described Kelley as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt "New Deal Democrat." He was the "people's attorney general" and on the cutting edge of environmentalism and consumer protection, Brewer said.

The causes he pushed were right and popular, Brewer said.

"Particularly in Michigan, we treasure our environment," Brewer said. "He was right there on that."

Candice Miller, Macomb County's public works commission, served her first term as Michigan's Republican secretary of state during Kelley's last term as attorney general.

"I was very honored that our terms overlapped so that I got a chance to serve with him, know him and work together on a number of issues," Miller said. "He was such a wonderful, professional public servant. What an impactful life he led."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, tweeted that Kelley "led a long, impactful life of commitment to public service."

Matthew Schneider, a Republican and the former U.S. attorney for Michigan's Eastern District, said Kelley will always be a legendary attorney general in American history.

"We will miss his ethics, integrity and smile," Schneider said. "And I’ll miss his lawyer jokes and how he was so kind to me and my wife Rebecca."

Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Kelley was one of a kind.

"While many may not realize it, every Michigan resident’s life is better in some way because of Frank’s service," Ananich said. "Our hearts are with the Kelley family as they mourn their loss and we hope they find peace knowing that he left our state a better place than he found it."

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, called Kelley a "mentor and friend."

“I am deeply saddened to learn of Frank Kelley’s passing," Kildee said. "As our state’s longest-serving Attorney General, Frank was a force for good, championing consumer protections and safeguarding our environment. Frank changed the lives of every Michigander for the better."

U.S. Rep Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said Kelley was a dear friend to her late husband John Dingell, a U.S. Rep. in Michigan's delegation for 59 years.

"Frank Kelley and John Dingell were friends for nearly 70 years, and he was a friend and mentor I could trust with my whole heart," Dingell said. "He fought hard for the underdog, cared deeply about people, and cherished the role he played in protecting democracy and human rights.

"Even though he never hesitated to make sure his voice was heard, he listened to everyone with an open mind. With an infectious laugh and bright smile, he could make you laugh at the darkest of times. He was a rock for all those who knew him, and he will be deeply missed.”

Daniel J. Loepp, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, said Kelley had earned the distinction of being called the people’s lawyer.

"Frank Kelley made a better life for the people of Michigan and set an amazing example for those who worked for him, with him or were inspired by him," Loepp said. "I was fortunate to be one of the many people who worked for Mr. Kelley and was deeply impacted by him from the first day. Our condolences go out to the entire Kelley family.

Kelley was the first to capture the full role of the attorney general "in consumer and environmental protection, utility regulation and civil rights," said Tom Miller, Iowa's attorney general. 

"He was a wonderful person and a very close personal friend. And oh, yes, I will always remember the Kelley wit," Miller said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com