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Frank Kelley, Michigan’s longtime attorney general, dies at 96

LANSING — Frank Kelley,  Michigan’s “eternal general,” has died at the age of 96.

Kelley earned his nickname by serving as Michigan’s attorney general for 37 years from 1961 to 1999, which remains a national record for continuous service in that state post. 

The Detroit native died Friday night in an assisted living home in Naples, Fla., his family said in a statement. He had been sick and moved to the facility in 2020.

He was a great dad and husband, who had a great sense of humor,” Kelley’s children said in a statement. “He was a loyal friend and mentor to many, he considered public service as an honor.  He loved the law and his loyalty to the people of Michigan was unwavering." 

Kelley began his tenure as the state’s youngest attorney general at 36 years old. By the time he left office, he was Michigan’s oldest attorney general at 74.

He was appointed to fill a vacancy by then-Gov. John Swainson, who was seven months younger than he was. Ten days on the job, Kelley got a congratulatory phone call from another young rising star: Bobby Kennedy, he recalled in his 2015 memoir. 

“I felt we all had something in common: We felt we could make this world a better place, ” Kelley wrote. “I was about to find out how true that was.”

Elevated from his role as a small-town attorney in Alpena, Kelley quickly earned a reputation as a fierce consumer advocate and appeared on national television shows as an expert in the field. He was hailed as the first state attorney general in the country to establish both a consumer protection and environmental protection. 

Kelley also played a leading role in two of Michigan’s most important government transparency laws: The Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act.

While he was a Democrat, Kelley was known for working across the aisle. Even in death, he brought people together, including state attorney generals who have served since him. 

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who succeeded Kelley and later became Michigan governor, called him her “first mentor in state government.”

“And what a teacher he was, with an Irishman's gift of humor and a fierce heart for the average working person," Granholm, a Democrat, said in a statement. 

"When I was governor, Frank would pop into my office every few weeks with humorous advice on how to fight and who to fight. He wasn't one to back down whether it was wrangling with the utility companies or corrupt officials. No wonder he held the record as the nation's longest serving attorney general for so many years. Voters loved him and he loved them back. And I loved him, too."

Kelley “was a remarkable man and led a remarkable life,” Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette wrote on Twitter. 

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

Current Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, said she fully agreed with Schuette. “Frank was one of a kind,” she wrote in a retweet. “He will be deeply missed, but his legacy will continue to live on.”

One of Kelley’s last public roles was as chair of Nessel’s 2018 transition team, which helped Michigan’s 55th attorney general prepare to take office. 

He was an “extraordinary man, the quintessential public servant, and a legend in his own time,” Nessel said in a longer statement, going on to note his consumer advocacy and government transparency work, along with his role in securing tobacco settlement money that has benefited Michigan and other states. 

“As extraordinary as his accomplishments were, many will best remember Mr. Kelley for his humor, friendship, and humanity,” Nessel said. “ He will be sorely missed.” 

Kelley began his tenure long before term limits, which Michigan voters added to the  state constitution in 1992.

He won re-election again in 1994, and while he was eligible for one more term under the new constitutional amendment, he opted against running for re-election in 1998 and instead went on to open what became a prominent bipartisan lobbying firm in Lansing.

Former Michigan House Republican Leader Dennis Cawthorne, his business partner at the Kelley-Cawthrone lobbying firm, called Kelley “one of the most kind-hearted, honest, ethical persons I have ever known, in both his public service and in his 15 years of practice with me in the private law sector.” 

Among his honors: The State Bar of Michigan created the Frank J. Kelley Distinguished Public Service award  in 1998 and named him the first recipient. 

The Michigan Legislature passed a law in 2012 to rename the walkway that runs between the Michigan Capitol and the Hall of Justice, which houses the state Supreme Court, as the Frank J. Kelley Walkway.

 

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