Burton Leland, former Lansing lawmaker, dies at 69

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
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Burton Leland, a longtime public officeholder who served as “warrior” for social justice in the state House and Senate, and as a Wayne County commissioner, died Sunday morning after a long battle with cancer, his family said. He was 69.

His son, Detroit Councilman Gabe Leland, confirmed his death. His father was in hospice for recurring prostate cancer, which was diagnosed 10 years ago, he said.

“It was aggressive,” Gabe Leland said of his father’s cancer battle. “He had an opportunity to go through some radiation, and the cancer came back pretty strongly about three years ago. He fought it with chemo and hormonal therapy and more radiation. The warrior lost the last battle.

“It’s really unfortunate. He was such a brave man, a lot of passion for social justice and community service. He tried to see the best in everyone. He would go against the grain.”

Leland, a Democrat from Detroit, announced on Dec. 21 that he would resign from the Wayne County Commission effective Jan. 10, after 11 years on the board. He spent 37 years in public office, starting as a state representative in 1980. He also spent eight years in the state Senate.

Colleagues quickly offered statements about Leland's commitment to public service.

“Today, we lost one of Michigan’s and Detroit’s most memorable political characters,” said Gary Woronchak, Wayne County Commission chairman, in a statement. “Burton Leland was quirky and unfiltered, passionate and outspoken and an outstanding public servant.”

“It’s sad to hear of the passing of Burton Leland," said Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans. "He passionately served the public for many years and always stood up for what he believed in. Our thoughts and prayers are with Commissioner Leland’s family and loved ones.”

Gabe Leland said one of his dad’s first achievements in Lansing was a Lemon Law in the 1980s. The law gave car buyers a replacement vehicle if a defect was found that could not be fixed, according to an obituary on the Ira Kaufman Chapel website.

Leland was born and raised in Detroit and graduated from Mumford High School. He went on to earn a business degree from Wayne State University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. His belief that “higher education was necessary to adult success” led to the creation of the Burton Leland scholarship fund, according to the chapel’s website.

Gabe Leland said his father donated half of his commissioner salary to the scholarship fund at Wayne State University.

“He said, ‘I don’t need the money, and the students that are getting their education deserve it more than I do,’ ” his son said.

Woronchak said Leland “knew how to reach the people he represented and how to take good care of” his constituents.

“He was a warrior, both on the campaign trail and on behalf of social justice for the most vulnerable among us,” Woronchak said. “Most sadly, his family lost a husband and father, and I and many others lost a true and loyal friend.”

Gabe Leland said he has “big shoes to fill” following in his father’s footsteps.

“He exemplified what it was to be a public servant,” Gabe Leland said. “He knocked on every door in his district. He took care of quality-of-life issues. He wanted to make sure that the residents got better services. That was what he championed.”

In addition to Gabe Leland, Burton Leland is survived by Rosanne, his wife of 45 years; son Zachary; granddaughter Lilly; and brother Joel, according to information on the Ira Kaufman Chapel website.

Services will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Ira Kaufman Chapel, 18325 W. Nine Mile in Southfield. Interment is at Adat Shalom Memorial Park Cemetery.

The family suggests that those who wish to honor his memory make a contribution to Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue 1457 Griswold, Detroit, 48226.


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