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Longtime Michigan attorney general Frank Kelley dies

Attorney General Frank J. Kelley,Dec. 16, 1998 file photo
Dale Atkins
Associated Press

Frank J. 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.

Kelley, a Democrat, served from 1961 to 1999, winning statewide election 10 times. He moved to Naples, Florida, in 2020 and died Friday night, said spokesman Chris De Witt, who didn’t give a cause of death.

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 an autobiography, “The People’s Lawyer,” he co-wrote with Jack Lessenberry.

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

The Detroit native was a lawyer in Alpena, a small town in northern Michigan, when Gov. John 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.”