Michigan's Longest-Serving Governor, William Milliken, Remains Relevant

The right wing of his party once snubbed him, but Michigan’s former governor remains the state’s Grand Old Politician


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Few people knew anything about venture capitalist Rick Snyder when he began running for governor early last year.

The former Gateway computer executive began winning attention with his “tough nerd” commercial during the Super Bowl. He campaigned aggressively, spending millions of his own money.

Yet, less than two weeks before the August GOP primary, it seemed likely that Snyder would come up short. He was running third behind Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and Pete Hoekstra, a congressman from the heart of west Michigan Dutch country.

Then something dramatic happened. William G. Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, emerged from retirement to do something he hasn’t done in years. The Republican former governor turned heads by endorsing a Republican for governor. In the decades since his tenure, he has been largely a pariah within his own party. Conservatives who chafed under his moderate-to-liberal politics and governing style revolted when he decided not to seek re-election in 1982. They bypassed his chosen successor, the late Lt. Gov. James Brickley, and instead nominated Richard Headlee, the brash tax-cutting insurance executive.

Headlee went out of his way to insult Helen Milliken, the governor’s outspoken feminist wife in that campaign, which clearly hurt him with GOP women. He lost, but conservatives who had little use for “Milliken moderates” remained firmly in control of the party.

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