Former Gov. William Milliken, whose brand of moderate politics has all but disappeared from the GOP, dies at 97

By: - October 18, 2019 5:59 pm

Portrait of Gov. William Milliken in the state Capitol | Nick Manes

William Milliken, a moderate Republican and ardent environmentalist who served as Michigan’s governor from 1969 to 1983, died on Friday in Traverse City, according to news reports. He was 97.

A World War II veteran, Milliken served as a state senator and then lieutenant governor under Gov. George Romney, father of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Milliken became governor after then-President Richard Nixon tapped George Romney to serve in his administration. He would become Michigan’s longest-serving chief executive, holding the office for 14 years.

Milliken made the Great Lakes one of his top priorities, working to clean up phosphates in Lake Erie. He also fought and won for Michigan’s landmark bottle deposit law. Michigan environmentalist Dave Dempsey was inspired to write a biography of him titled, “William Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate.”

Milliken and his wife, Helen Milliken, were social liberals, championing abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Helen died in 2012.

The former governor’s moderate politics didn’t jibe with an increasingly hard-right Republican Party in recent decades. While he endorsed Republicans like U.S. Sen. John McCain for president in 2008 and now-former Gov. Rick Snyder twice in 2010 and 2014, Milliken is bitterly remembered by Republicans for his Democratic endorsements, like Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. His Grand Traverse Republican Party even condemned him that year for his blessing of Clinton.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer memorialized Milliken Friday evening. Her father, Richard Whitmer, served in his cabinet.

Gretchen Whitmer, March 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

“Governor Milliken was a true statesman who led our state with integrity and honor. He had a unique ability to bring people from both sides of the aisle together for the betterment of Michigan,” she said. “We are a stronger, safer, more sustainable state because of his leadership and dedication to the people who call it home.

“I’ve always looked up to Governor Milliken as a trusted, respected leader and I’m proud to have called him a friend of the family. I extend my deepest and most heartfelt condolences to Governor Milliken’s family for their loss. May we all continue to learn from his lifetime of service as we work together to build a stronger Michigan for everyone.”

Several Michigan political leaders also shared their memories.

Former state Sen. Jason Allen (R-Traverse City) wrote on Twitter, “Sadden by the loss of former Michigan Governor Bill Milliken. A true leader and patriot. God rest his soul.”

Susan J. Demas

Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm tweeted, “So very sad — Bill Milliken was the personification of decency. RIP to a fervent conservationist, a statesman, an honest and true gentleman. If only we had more like him in this moment of division and acrimony … I know his beloved wife Helen is happy to welcome him home.”

And U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) wrote on Twitter, “Gov. Milliken was a friend, always. He encouraged me on many fronts and led a life with no regrets. His infectious smile charmed and disarmed all who knew him, and his bipartisan style served as a role model of days gone by and certainly needed today!”

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.