Frank Kelley, the Michigan’s longest-serving attorney general, dies at 96

By: - March 6, 2021 1:30 pm

Frank Kelley | MSU photo

Updated, 4:36 p.m., 3/6/21

Affectionately known as the “eternal general” for his record tenure of service in Michigan, former state Attorney General Frank J. Kelley has died at age 96, according to his family.

The Detroit-born Democrat served as Michigan’s chief law enforcement officer from 1961 to 1999 — 37 years — who was the longest-serving AG in national history until Tom Miller of Iowa surpassed him.* He provided a bridge between Democratic and Republican political titans, like Govs. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, William Milliken and James Blanchard and John Engler. 

What’s more, Kelley created the state attorney general’s office as we know it today, said Jack Lessenberry, who co-wrote his 2015 autobiography, “The People’s Lawyer.”

Frank Kelley | Wikimedia Commons

“No Michigan attorney general had served longer than five years,” Lessenberry told the Advance on Saturday. “They saw it as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court, or a higher office. They ascended to governor or the Legislature. But Frank Kelley was a crusader.”  

Lessenberry said Kelley was best known for his focus that centered on consumer protection, as well as environment and civil protections. He was first appointed by Democratic Gov. John Swainson to fill a vacancy left when Paul L. Adams joined the Michigan Supreme Court. 

Kelley ran for a Michigan U.S. Senate seat in 1972, but was unsuccessful, losing to GOP incumbent Robert Griffin. Lessenberry said that Kelley’s support for public school busing to achievement equity and racial integration cost him the election that year. 

During his post-election days, Kelley served as a lobbyist, co-founding Lansing-based Kelley Cawthorne with Republican Dennis Cawthorne. Kelley’s endorsement was still coveted, with Democrats Jennifer Granholm and Gretchen Whitmer both receiving it in their successful gubernatorial bids.

Whitmer said that Kelley was an “absolute favorite” to “get advice, perspective, or humor.” Her late mother, Sherry, had served as an assistant attorney general during Kelley’s tenure.

“He was a never-ending fount of wisdom and fun,” said Whitmer through a statement. “From his college days to the battles he fought as Michigan’s longest serving attorney general, he always had stories and insight into the human condition and generosity of time. I know I am among countless, fortunate people who had the honor of working with the brilliant and irascible Frank J. Kelley. He will be missed but his mark on Michigan will be felt – as generations were benefited by his leadership. His endorsement of and counsel to candidates like me meant as much to us as it did to the public we hoped to serve. I’ll forever be grateful to my friend, Mr. Kelley.”

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

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Saturday called Kelley the “quintessential public servant.”

“Mr. Kelley was an extraordinary man, the quintessential public servant, and a legend in his own time. … During those many years of service, he was a beacon to the state, a mentor to many, and a valued advisor to notable public officials. And his energy and genuine passion for public service inspired countless others to likewise dedicate their talents in service to the people of Michigan,” she said in a statement.  

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) described Kelley as “one of a kind.” 

“His decades-long career as attorney general was dedicated to delivering justice, corporate accountability and a safer environment. While many may not realize it, every Michigan resident’s life is better in some way because of Frank’s service. Our hearts are with the Kelley family as they mourn their loss and we hope they find peace knowing that he left our state a better place than he found it.”

Bill Schuette, a former GOP state attorney general, described Kelley as a “remarkable man.” 

“He established the standard of conduct for Michigan Attorneys General. Great sense of humor and a wonderful public servant,” Schuette tweeted. “A legend in Michigan. He understood bi-partisan politics. We all will miss him.”

Correction: This story has been updated on Kelley’s length of service.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.