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

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.


Eight years later, when John Engler became the Republican governor of Michigan, he was as unlike Milliken as two politicians could be. Where Milliken was prone to civility, compromise, and cooperation, Engler was anything but.

Relations between the two appeared cordial on the rare occasions when they met, but Milliken stayed on the political sidelines and endorsed neither Engler nor any of his opponents in any of his successor’s three election victories.

Photograph courtesy of The Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Milliken did emerge from political retirement eight years ago, endorsing moderate state Sen. Joe Schwarz when he was attempting to win the GOP nomination for governor against Engler’s choice, Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus.

“I know they say Joe has no chance, but I feel it’s the right thing to do,” he said then. Schwarz lost by a margin of more than four to one. The last straw for many conservatives was Milliken’s 2004 endorsement of Democrat John Kerry for president. That support possibly did help Kerry win a narrow victory in Michigan. “It was the right thing to do,” Milliken said again. Whenever anyone suggested, however, that he leave the GOP, Milliken declined.

“I would prefer to stay in it and work to make it a better and more inclusive party again,” he said. As a boy, he corresponded with a political hero, progressive Republican Gov. Chase Osborn. His was the kind of Republican Party Milliken’s father and grandfather believed in. They stood for its principles in the state senate — as he himself did after them.

Milliken didn’t stop there. Beneath his boyish good looks was a shrewdness that helped him beat a party favorite to become lieutenant governor, and to succeed George Romney when he went to Washington. Milliken went on to win three terms by increasingly wider margins each time.

With that political history, Milliken wasn‘t about to stop fighting for the kind of GOP he believed in.

A little over a year ago, his son, Bill Jr., a commercial real-estate broker in Ann Arbor, suggested he might want to take a look at Snyder. The men met and talked.

Even when Milliken was in office, his fellow Republicans raged at their “ghetto governor,” for always trying to help Detroit.

Their initial meeting went far better than one Milliken had with Dick DeVos, the GOP nominee against Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2006.

DeVos came to see Milliken at his longtime Traverse City home, a rambling modern ranch on Grand Traverse Bay that architect Jim Marshall designed for the Millikens in the 1950s. (Before that, the couple lived in a pre-fab home on the same site.)

When the candidate left that meeting, Milliken’s sprinkler system went off, soaking DeVos — and his three-piece suit. “I hope he didn’t think it was deliberate,” Milliken says with a chuckle.

Milliken says DeVos was personable (at least before the soaking), but far too conservative. Four years later, Milliken decided that Snyder wasn’t all wet. With the primary in doubt, Milliken decided to take a stand. “I have come to the conclusion that one candidate stands out for his experience, his vision, and his commitment to working with the entire state,” Milliken said. “That candidate is Rick Snyder.”

Right-wing bloggers dismissed the endorsement. “What? Milliken? He is the original RINO [Republican In Name Only],” one wrote. “An old, tired liberal, out of touch, out of step. Remember his friendship with that [unprintable] Coleman Young?”

Young and Milliken indeed had been friends. Even when Milliken was in office, his fellow Republicans raged at their “ghetto governor,” for always trying to help Detroit.

Top, from left: Gov. William Milliken, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, and Chrysler Corp. President and CEO Lee Iacocca visit Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant in 1978. // Photograph courtesy of The Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Thirty years later, those sentiments resurfaced in the form of such comments as: Who cares whom he endorses? Who remembers Milliken today?

On primary-election night, they got their answer. Who cared? Like-minded Republicans and Independents, those who care about the environment, older Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for Milliken when he last ran, in 1978. The result wasn’t even close. Snyder demolished his closest opponent by 100,000 votes. Independents and Democrats had clearly crossed party lines. Bill Ballenger, the longtime publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, thinks the Milliken nod was a factor.

“Bill Milliken has been so beaten up over the years that his influence tends to be discounted,” Ballenger says. “Well, there seems to still be some there. His endorsement sent a clear signal to moderates and independents that hey, this guy was all right.”

The general election was an anticlimax. The result: A Snyder landslide was never in serious doubt. This time, not only did Milliken endorse Snyder, he drove down from Traverse City to campaign for him in the Detroit area, where the elfin-looking octogenarian seemed to attract almost as much interest as the candidate.

Milliken, the last Republican candidate for governor to carry Wayne County, says he likes Snyder because he “recognizes that we are one state … and the problems of Detroit and other cities in Michigan require the attention of us all.”

Three weeks after the election, chatting in his Traverse City living room, Milliken says he’s optimistic about Snyder, “Given the appointments he’s making and the fact that he’s really reaching out to a lot of groups.

“We need someone who can heal these great divisions we have, and I’m optimistic that he can do that.”

That doesn’t mean Milliken intends to be a rubber stamp for Snyder, who, as a teenager, campaigned for Milliken during the re-election battle in 1974. “I don’t fully agree with everything, and I don’t think I ever will,” Milliken says. “But then I don’t fully agree with anyone about anything,” he says, laughing as Helen nods.

“Bill Milliken has been so beaten up over the years that his influence tends to be discounted.”

The Millikens met during World War II, and have been married since Milliken returned from service. Last October, they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. The couple may be overqualified for the AARP, but they don’t act like senior citizens.

Helen, who was an outspoken feminist before it was popular, was named decades ago to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, where her citation reads: “Never sought or shrank from controversy.” The former first lady remains passionately pro-arts, pro-choice, and unhappy that the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified.

The governor himself received an honor in 2009 that few living men ever achieve: He was present when a state park was named for him — the William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor in downtown Detroit.

The park honors, intentionally or not, the governor’s longtime commitment to the environment and Detroit.

A portrait of Milliken in 1969, his first year as Michigan’s governor. He would serve until 1983. // Photograph courtesy of William G. Milliken papers collection, Bentley historical library, University of Michigan

But monuments or no monuments, the Millikens aren’t sitting idly at home. Rather, they may just be the youngest 88-year-old couple in America. Milliken regularly drives his Chrysler 300 to Washington, D.C., for board meetings of the Police Foundation, a non-profit he has chaired for years.

(“I’m not too happy about his making that drive,” Helen confides.) They read widely, walk, garden, bicycle, and spend time at their Mackinac Island cottage. And they’re not content to leave policy matters to those a few generations younger.

Helen is still an active feminist, and her husband has a cause to which he’s deeply committed: getting unfairly jailed women out of prison.

For years, the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project has fought to seek clemency and commutation for prisoners, many of whom they feel are victims of battered-woman syndrome.

Many of these women have spent decades in prison, he says, in some cases because they were merely present when a boyfriend killed someone, or when they killed an abuser in what really amounted to self-defense. “These are very sad situations,” Milliken says. “I went to one hearing that was just heartbreaking.”

The Clemency Project is headed by University of Michigan art professor Carol Jacobsen, who says: “Gov. Milliken has been an extremely valuable supporter.” He has worked behind the scenes for years, she says, quietly approaching Gov. Granholm in an effort to gain clemency for these women. As Granholm’s term in office ended, Milliken was clearly disappointed that they hadn’t succeeded in freeing more women.  “I don’t intend to give up,” he says.

Except on that one issue, Milliken has essentially refrained from dispensing unsolicited advice to his successors. But now a governor of his own party — and perhaps, own style and temperament — is in office. Will Milliken be newly influential in Lansing? He laughs.

“I’m pleased to give the governor my point of view if he asks for it, which I doubt he’ll do often,” Milliken says, petting Vita, the family Siamese cat. (The last of a long line of West Highland white terriers was hit by a car a few years back.)

Bill Rustem, Gov. Snyder’s director of strategy, likes to say that he was the “youngest person in the Milliken administration and [now] the oldest in the Snyder administration.” He knows both men well.

“I know he [Snyder] called him from time to time during the campaign, and I expect that will continue,” says Rustem, who was the architect of the 1976 “bottle bill” that made Michigan a recycling forerunner. “They’ve got a lot of things in common, a common governing style, for one. They both are capable of focusing with single-minded intensity on a problem. For Snyder, it’s reviving the Michigan economy. For Milliken in 1970, it was the environment.

“Do you remember what it was like that summer? They were shoveling dead alewives off the beaches. Time magazine had declared Lake Erie dead. And he turned things around.

Rustem says both men trust people. “Under Milliken as under Snyder, department heads will be free to do their jobs without interference,” he says. “They set the tone and then let them manage.”

Environmentalist Dave Dempsey may know the Milliken legacy as well as anyone. He’s the author of the 2006 biography William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate. Dempsey, now with the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes, suggests that even if his own party has shunned Milliken, “He’s had more impact post-governorship than any previous governor in Michigan history.”

Adding a thought of the type that the naturally modest former governor would just as soon dismiss, Dempsey says:

“He’s sort of the North Star for grading public servants and guiding the public — the standard by which a lot of us measure Michigan politics today and in the future.”

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