Berman: Ex-AG Kelley traces long fight for justice

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Frank Kelley describes himself as “happy as a lark,” and why not? At 90, he can openly celebrate accomplishments personal and political that deserve to command attention in our dysfunctional political era.

As the state’s longest-serving attorney general — so long the quip was “eternal general” — he not only won the recurring loyalty of statewide voters, but also survived criticism, without ever inspiring even the hint of scandal. Even before term limits were imposed, his was an almost absurd record of longevity.

His feat may be the political equivalent of dancing backwards and in high heels, which is to say that it’s harder than it looks.

Describing his co-author Jack Lessenberry their new book on Kelley’s life will be out this month as one of his new best friends, he adds that his longtime friends “aren’t promoting anything, because 95 percent of them are dead.” That observation is delivered in a tone that’s matter-of-fact, not wistful.

Sharp, funny and still quick with a story or a comeback, Kelley — who lives in serene comfort on a Lansing lake “like a Republican” — is the consummate political survivor.

As the state’s lawyer, Kelley worked with five governors, from John Swainson, who appointed him, through John Engler, a Republican who won his respect, even if Engler “loved every corporation he ever met.” But from the beginning, in 1962, he intended to broaden the scope of the Attorney General’s Office, to make it act on behalf of the people, rather than serving only as the corporate counsel for the executive and legislative branches of the state.

Before he’d even considered that goal, though, he’d been pushed by then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy invited him to Washington within a few weeks of his appointment, recognizing a potential ally in the 37-year-old Democrat, also an Irish Catholic.

“Reach out against injustice wherever you see it and protect the public,” he recalls Kennedy telling him.

So inspired, Kelley reached — making one of his first political blunders in the quest for justice. Recognizing that Michigan’s Constitution empowered him to intervene on behalf of the people anywhere in the state, he seized on the fate of Grady Little, a young black man attacked and killed by a group of white men in a Palmer Park neighborhood.

When the apparent killer failed to be prosecuted, Kelley pushed forward anyway, creating political enmity. The trial, with an all-white jury, was a farce that taught the new AG a bitter lesson: You can seek justice, but you cannot necessarily win it.

And while his intervention infuriated the Detroit police and white power structure, it established his sincerity in Detroit’s black community.

He is proudest of the talented team of lawyers he assembled, and his influence as a fighter for consumer and environmental protection — a record that’s worthy of consideration, in light of more recent AGs who hesitate to intervene in mortgage fraud or charity scams or other abuses that directly affect the public.

Kelley’s story is a long time coming: He retired in 1999, and was already working on his autobiography. It’s now being published with a title as long as his career: “The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation’s Longest Serving Attorney General.”

The sprawling original manuscript was tamed by Lessenberry, the journalist who became Kelley’s close friend during the writing process. “I didn’t know Jack Lessenberry before,” says Kelley. “He’s a free spirit, a Renaissance man. We got to be soul brothers.”

Lessenberry may have clipped out “some of the junk,” as Kelley put it, including what Kelley describes as an early flirtation with socialism (“My father told me I could be a socialist but to remember ‘your name is John Morgan and your address is the barber shop.’ ”) and most imaginable indiscretions.

It does reveal, however, that Kelley lied about his age to work as a seaman on a Great Lakes boat, an experience that hardened him physically and helped mature him emotionally.

Why did Kelley endure in a political office that — before and since — has typically been more of a political stepping stone? He recognizes being blessed with certain instinctual gifts, a way with people that enabled him to be elected class president seven times in school — and attorney general 10 times after that.

His father, a bar owner and political appointee, inspired Kelley to work on behalf of the public. That idea seems almost quaint in today’s scandal-strewn, money-infested political landscape. But isn’t it worth reviving?