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Nation's longest-serving state AG "really saw his life as public service"

Sep 30, 2015

Frank Kelley
Credit Detroit Free Press

Frank Kelley is a man of the people and a true public servant.

He became both the youngest and oldest Attorney General in Michigan's history, serving for 37 years. He worked with seven presidents and five Michigan governors, acted to touch the lives of everyone in our state, and bowed out gracefully without a whiff of scandal or disrepute in all that time in office.

His story is told in the new book The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation’s Longest-Serving Attorney General.

 

Michigan Radio’s own Jack Lessenberry co-wrote the book with Kelley.

Lessenberry tells us he was drawn to Kelley’s story not only because he served as attorney general longer than anyone else, but also because of his lasting influence on state politics.

“He was … sort of the godfather to the modern Michigan Democratic party in many ways,” he says.

Lessenberry says before Kelley came around, the office of attorney general was “sort of a placeholder job,” and no one had held the position for more than five years.

He tells us that traditionally the AG would defend the state against lawsuits, but wouldn’t usually initiate anything.

But according to Lessenberry, Kelley was more of an activist. He reorganized the department, pioneered consumer protection law, got involved in civil rights “quite early,” and created a system by which all legal business of the state fell under the same umbrella.

Lessenberry tells us that Kelley’s father was “a major player in the Wayne County Democratic machine,” but Kelley didn’t like the idea of coasting into the scene on his dad’s coattails.

“Frank wanted to make it on his own. So he and a buddy went out to Alpena, and this really helped him politically, because this was in an era when there weren’t that many Democrats north of Flint,” Lessenberry says.

According to Lessenberry, it was due to his move to Alpena and his work there that Kelley was chosen at age 37 by Gov. John Swainson to be Michigan’s new chief lawyer.

Lessenberry tells us that Kelley’s hope for the book is simply to reach library shelves across the state and inspire young people to answer the call to public service.

“He’s worried about the country. He’s worried about the condition of the country and the way people regard the country and that there isn’t a tradition of public service,” Lessenberry says.

Jack Lessenberry tells us more about Frank Kelley and their book in our conversation above.