Ex-Michigan Dem party chairman Gary Corbin dies at 77

Alex Nester
The Detroit News
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Gary Corbin

Gary Corbin, a former state senator who led a resurgence for Michigan Democrats as state party chairman in the early 1990s, died Friday, July 12, 2019, of cancer. He was 77. 

"Gary was the most honorable person I have ever known," former Lt. Gov. John Cherry said. "He planted trees that are still growing."

During his time in state politics, Mr. Corbin advocated for education, tax fairness, unions and urban communities. He authored a bill, the 1978 Lobby Act, requiring lobbyists to register with the secretary of state and report expenditures. 

"He was committed to doing his part to make things better for everyone," said Genesee County Treasurer Deb Cherry, the former lieutenant governor's sister.

Mr. Corbin began his political career in Genesee County, running for the Board of Commissioners in 1970, responding to what Deb Cherry — who worked on his campaign — described as a calling to better his community. A Democrat, Mr. Corbin won in a district that was firmly Republican at the time, according to John Cherry.

"He was just that kind of person," John Cherry said. "He had an ability to bring people together."

From there, he was elected to the Michigan Senate in 1974. He went on to serve three terms and rose to become assistant majority leader and majority floor leader, with John Cherry working as his chief of staff.

Deb Cherry said one of Mr. Corbin's achievements in Lansing was passage of the Lobby Act. Transparency in government was important to him, she said.

In 1991, Mr. Corbin was elected as the state Democratic Party chairman, helping Bill Clinton the next year become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Michigan since 1968. He also eliminated much of the debt the party had incurred during the 1990 election.

"At the time, as a party, we were extremely united," John Cherry said. "It takes a lot to accomplish that."

However, after the state's Democrats suffered huge losses in the 1994 elections, Corbin chose not to run for another term as party chairman.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, said Mr. Corbin "was always driven by his passion for helping others."

“I’ve known Gary since I was a teenager and later had the privilege of working side by side with him throughout his public service," Kildee said. "Gary cared deeply about our state, his family and making sure every child had a good neighborhood to grow up in."

Mr. Corbin was born in Bedford, Indiana, and graduated from Bedford High School. He went on to play football at Anderson University and was nominated all four years for the all-conference award. During his time in college, Mr. Corbin worked at the Delco Remy automotive plant and was a member of the United Auto Workers. 

After receiving his undergraduate degree, he earned a Master of Divinity degree at Anderson. Mr. Corbin married Sheila Buck in 1962 and the couple moved to Clio, Michigan, in 1967. There, Mr. Corbin was a pastor at the Community Church of God, and Sheila Corbin taught in Clio Area Schools.

In 1996, Mr. Corbin and his daughter Sally opened Union Services Agency, which provides provides secondary insurance for union insurance funds. The company operates in 28 states. 

Deb Cherry said Mr. Corbin was committed to President John F. Kennedy's vision of making life better for all people, and his commitment to ethics in government reflected how he conducted his life.

Mr. Corbin will be remembered as "a great family man, role model, and an example," Deb Cherry said. He was a problem-solver, and could get people to the table to tackle the challenges at hand.

"He could bring people together, and though he spoke his mind, he would listen to others too," she said. 

Many of Mr. Corbin's staffers went on to be elected to public office themselves, including John Cherry and state Rep. Tim Sneller, D-Burton. He supported his daughter, Susan, during her career in state politics as well.

In addition to his wife and daughters, Mr. Corbin is survived by three grandsons.

A memorial will be held in Lansing at a later date.

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