William Milliken, Former Michigan Governor, Dead at 97

by Josh Colletta

Michigan’s longest-serving governor — a Republican who both pushed buttons and made friends of all political affiliations — has passed away.

The Associated Press reports that William G. Milliken died Friday at his home in Traverse City after years of declining health, according to family spokesman Jack Lessenberry.

Milliken was promoted from Lieutenant Governor to Governor when George Romney resigned to join Richard Nixon’s cabinet as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1969.

A moderate Republican, Milliken established a record of environmental conservation and bipartisan cooperation, often coming into conflict with members of his own party, but also winning over fans like Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young.

In one of his first acts as Michigan’s chief executive, he sent the state legislature a 20-point environmental plan, out of which came many laws currently on the books in the Great Lakes State, including the Environmental Protection Act, protections for the state’s waterways, the soft drink deposit system, and limits on phosphorus in laundry detergent. His wife also convinced him to push for limitations on oil and gas drilling in the Pigeon River State Forest. In a 2006 interview, he said that defending the environment was a “never-ending struggle.”

In 1972, Milliken signed legislation into effect that created the Michigan Lottery.

An accidental shipment of a toxic chemical in place of cattle feed created a crisis in 1973; the long, drawn-out process of targeting and rectifying the problem, along with the slaughter of over a million animals, resulting in a near riot as Governor Milliken spoke about the situation in Mio — with his own effigy hanging behind him.

Also early in that decade, Milliken granted asylum to a young black man named Lester Stiggers, who had traveled to Michigan on furlough from prison in Arkansas, where he had been convicted of killing his abusive father. Among other reasons, the governor cited the “cruel and unusual treatment” of black people in Arkansas prisons when he rejected requests to extradite Stiggers.

William Rustem, Milliken’s environmental advisor, said the former governor “believed government should be about seeking solutions that bring people together, instead of political issues that divide.”

Milliken had been rejected by his own party’s leadership for the better part of the past decade, with Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak quoted in 2014 as saying “He’s not relevant any longer.” But that didn’t stop many candidates — Republican or Democrat — from asking for his endorsement, which he gave to presidential candidates John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008, and eventual governor Rick Snyder in 2010.

Governor Milliken’s remains will be cremated and interred next to those of his wife Helen and daughter Elaine in the Mackinac Island Cemetery, with a memorial service to be held next May.