Longtime Michigan AG Kelley dies

AP Photo In this Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1998, file photo, Attorney General Frank J. Kelley speaks during an interview, about his retirement at the end of the year in his Lansing, Mich., office. Kelley, affectionately called the “eternal general” for his 37 years as Michigan's longest-serving attorney general, has died at age 96, his family said Saturday, March 6, 2021. Kelley, a Democrat, served from 1961 to 1999, winning statewide election 10 times. He moved to Naples, Fla., in 2020 and died Friday night, spokesman Chris De Witt said.

ALPENA — Frank Kelley, Michigan’s longest-serving attorney general, with ties to Northeast Michigan, died Friday in Naples, Florida. He was 96 years old.

Former District Court Judge Ted Johnson said because he once served as the city attorney, Kelley would often return to Alpena and those were the times he would talk to him.

“He wasn’t just the longest-serving attorney general in Michigan history, but he was a champion of consumer protection and environmental protection — he passed the Open Meetings Act,” Johnson said. “He will be missed. He was a pillar of the legal community.”

Johnson said the last time he saw Kelley was for the hanging of the portraits of former district court judges John Mack and Robert Vandenberg in the courtroom. He said that was at least six years ago.

Kelley came from a family of influence in Wayne County’s Democratic circles, but he didn’t want to have his path carved out for him, according to a 2015 story from Michigan Radio.

That’s why Kelley moved up to Alpena as a Democrat in a town of Republicans, a place where he could make a name for himself by himself.

Kelley knew he could become a known trial lawyer quicker in Alpena than he could working in the criminal courts in Wayne County, Kelley said in his book, “The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation’s Longest-Serving Attorney General,” which he co-authored with Jack Lessenberry.

According to the book, one of his law school classmates, John Mack, already moved to Alpena but had yet to find a practice.

When former Gov. G. Mennen Williams appointed the community’s only Democratic attorney, Philip J. Glennie, to a vacant judgeship, Glennie suggested Kelley and Mack take over the practice, according to the book. There were only nine lawyers practicing in Alpena when Kelley arrived.

During his time in Alpena, Kelley helped a group of citizens stop the Alpena County Board of Commissioners from building the county jail next to the courthouse. He also argued cases that he described as far from earth shattering.

Kelley eventually became the city attorney, hired by an all-Republican city council. He originally agreed to take the appointment as city attorney for a year, but was reappointed to the position as long as he lived in Alpena.

“Believe it or not, that tolerant act by that group of Republicans to make me city attorney, I always remembered it,” Kelley told Leon Cohan in a 2004 interview for the Michigan Political Historical Society. “Years later, when I worked with you in the capital, I always remembered you don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t be too political. Remember there’s good people on both sides of the aisle.”

His work in Northeast Michigan caught the attention of Gov. John Swainson, who named him Michigan attorney general. At the time, Kelley was the youngest attorney general in the country. When he retired 37 years later, he was the oldest attorney general in the country and held the record for the longest-serving attorney general until Iowa’s Tom Miller broke the record last year.

A plaque honoring Kelley was hung in 2013 outside of a courtroom in the 26th Circuit Court in Alpena.

Kelley, affectionately called the “eternal general” served from 1961 to 1999, winning statewide election 10 times.

Kelley was the state government’s top lawyer at a time of sweeping change in politics and culture. He was credited with creating consumer and environmental protection divisions in the attorney general’s office and was a defender of civil rights.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered state and U.S. flags on public grounds to be flown at half-staff through March 20 to honor the “brilliant and irascible” lawyer.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who became attorney general after Kelley’s retirement, said he had an “Irishman’s gift of humor and a fierce heart for the average working person.”

“When I was governor, Frank would pop into my office every few weeks with humorous advice on how to fight and who to fight,” Granholm said. “He wasn’t one to back down whether it was wrangling with the utility companies or corrupt officials.”

Indeed, Kelley was aggressive and unapologetic. He said one of his heroes was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs in the 1930s expanded the role of the federal government.

“Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘Get the government off your back.’ In a free democracy like ours, the only chance you’ve got is the government,” Kelley said in 2015 at an event to promote his autobiography.

“You think a private corporation will take care of you? Forget it,” Kelley said.

After Swainson appointed him attorney general in 1961, voters elected Kelley and reelected him for decades; his only loss was a run for the U.S. Senate in 1972.

Kelley’s death occurred nearly 18 months after the death of Michigan’s longest-serving governor, William Milliken, who held the top office for 14 years. Because of term limits that have since been put in place, their longevity won’t be matched.

Kelley was deeply respected by politicians from both parties. Former Gov. John Engler, a conservative Republican, recalled how Kelley’s office represented his administration in legal matters.

“Never once was there a breach of the trust we had in each other. … I could not have had a finer lawyer,” Engler said Saturday.

Lessenberry said one of Kelley’s key accomplishments was persuading lawmakers to pass a 1976 law that gave power to consumers and the attorney general’s office to fight deceptive retail practices. Experts, however, argue that it has been watered down by decisions from conservative courts.

Years after Kelley left office, a walkway between the Capitol and the Michigan Supreme Court was named for him. In 2012, Kelley’s name was added to a state law library.

“Most of this stuff is done posthumously,” he said in 2013. “I’m just lucky to have lived to the ripe old age.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story


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