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Carol Cain

Carol Cain

Bill Milliken’s Impression

August 22, 2014

TRAVERSE CITY – Rick Snyder was an impressionable 16-year-old when he made his foray into politics and volunteered to help Gov. Bill Milliken run for his first full term as leader of Michigan.

Milliken prevailed and became Michigan’s longest serving governor—a title he will have forever with term limits in place.

Forty years later, Milliken is returning the favor as the trailblazing 92-year-old Republican taped a new TV commercial this week in Traverse City endorsing Gov. Snyder’s re-election bid against Democratic challenger Mark Schauer,

The new spot will air this fall.


A generation ago, Milliken was Lt. Gov. under Gov. George Romney and assumed the top job when Romney left to join President Richard M. Nixon as head of HUD. Milliken finished out that term and ran in a tough contest against Democratic challenger Rep. Sander Levin. He won that gubernatorial contest and two others.

Born and raised in Traverse City, Milliken and his policies obviously left a lasting impression on Snyder. He borrows a page from Milliken’s gubernatorial playbook as they share concerns over similar issues.

Front and center to Milliken was helping Detroit deal with its fiscal crisis as he worked closely with Mayor Coleman Young. It was a turbulent time as the city was still recovering from the 1967 riot.

In the press conference where he announced his candidacy four years ago, Snyder talked about Detroit and the need to help it despite critics who might have preferred a focus on other things

Milliken worked closely with Young to champion statutory state revenue sharing which helped the Motor City and a dozen other cities.

“We had a very good relationship,” said Milliken. “ I trusted him and I liked him. I tried hard to do everything I could to be helpful to the city of Detroit and the mayor.”

Milliken’s other lasting imprint was helping Michigan’s environment with his efforts which included cleaning up the Great Lakes and passing the state’s bottle return law. The environment has also been high on Snyder ‘s list of priorities for the state.

So too their focus on building economic bridges with China – the world’s most populous nation with 1.3 billion people .

Ironically, Snyder never met Milliken until 2009.

It was Bill Milliken, Jr, a successful Ann Arbor real estate developer who encouraged his dad to meet with Snyder, a former Gateway CEO who billed himself as “the nerd.”

The duo met and Millken – whose endorsement still carries weight as evidenced by pilgrimage of candidates from both parties who travel to Traverse City to win his blessing –came out with his support of Snyder days before the GOP primary four years ago.

It helped Snyder win over better known Republicans in that contest.

“Bill Milliken left an important, distinguished mark in Michigan’s history and path,” said Snyder.

Snyder pointed to the imprint the former governor made with a belief in Detroit and his work and legacy on conservation issues.


Few would argue that William Grawn Milliken leaves an impression on those he meets.

“I think he was a very good governor and exemplified the bipartisan spirit people long for today, ” said former Gov. James Blanchard, a Democrat who followed Milliken in the governor’s seat.

Known as the gentlemanly politician, he was also known for his ability to navigate tough situations.

“Milliken was a strong governor from the old school — practical on issues and policy, and quietly clever when maneuvering the thicket of state politics,” said Jon Wolman, who was Michigan editor of Associated Press when Millken was governor.

“He was a win-win guy, with rivals often sharing in any effort to break a legislative impasse or solve out a problem,” said Wolman, now publisher of The Detroit News. “The governor was a Gerry Ford Republican and played a surprisingly vigorous role in the 1980 convention in Detroit where Republicans considered a Reagan Ford ticket before coming to their senses.”

At that convention, Calif Gov. Ronald Reagan was nominated and eventually George H.W. Bush was as well as his vice president.

But there was a power play in the midst of the convention of having former President Gerald Ford, who hailed from Grand Rapids, as vice president which would have made him more of a co-president with Reagan.

The idea was nixed. That Reagan-Bush duo went on to win in a landslide over Jimmy Carter.

Milliken’s voice still resonates as few others when it comes to statewide politics.

Which is why I traveled north to talk with him about politics—past and present.


He also appeared in the recent prime time TV special I produced and hosted for CBS62 in Detroit called “Michigan in Transition.”

Milliken lives in a comfortable home overlooking Grand Traverse Bay that he and his late wife, Helen, built decades ago.

The home is devoid of the bevy of photographs of Milliken with well known leaders one might have expected after a long, storied career.

“I got rid of them a few years ago,” he explained. He also donated his papers to the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan.

Instead, his living room is chock full of books, particularly ones about politics.

“Here, did you see this one?” Milliken asked as he pulled out Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” book sitting atop his bookshelf.

It had an inscription which he proudly pointed out, “On a clear day from my home in Alaska, I can see Traverse City.”

Not having met Milliken before, but hearing how he sometimes bucked his own party and went rogue by supporting Democrats like John Kerry for president over incumbent George W. Bush or Gov. Jennifer Granholm over GOP challenger Dick DeVos, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“This means so much to me,” he added, before breaking out in laughter.

Turns out his son gave the book to him as a joke.

Milliken, a more liberal leaning Republican, is hardly a fan of the Tea Party.

“The Tea Party represents a sad state of affairs. They are coalesced around wedge issues like gay marriage. That’s unfortunate as that isn’t what the (GOP) party needs,” he said.

Milliken said the leader he truly admired was President Franklin Roosevelt.

“When I was younger, during his administration, I was in New York City with my parents and I decided to go for a walk. He went by in his presidential limousine with the top down and I swear he took his hat off and waved it at me.”

“Well, I’d like to think he was waving at me,” he laughed.

“He had the interests of the country at heart,” said Milliken. “He was able to deal with the many problems of the country and dealt with them effectively. I didn’t totally agree with everything he did, but I respected him.”

At 92, the governor is going strong as he drives his Chrysler 300 to downtown Traverse City most days for lunch.


He doesn’t do many interviews anymore but agreed to talk to me thanks to some nudging by George Weeks, another Traverse City favored son who served as Milliken’s chief of staff and press secretary at various times.

Milliken and Weeks both worked with my late brother Charlie Cain, a longtime reporter and bureau chief for the Detroit News’ Lansing bureau.

“He taught me a thing or two,’ Milliken said of Charlie with a smile.

My brother was new to Lansing and doing the year-end interview along with another Detroit News reporter, Dave Ashenfelter, with Milliken.

After a wide ranging interview, Charlie wound it down by asking Milliken if he liked being governor and was the job ever a pain.

“Sometime, it’s a pain in the ass,” Milliken admitted, then quickly added,“but that was off the record.”

Charlie wasn’t sure what to do with that comment and consulted with his editors who told him to write it. He did and it gained attention.

You can’t say ‘off the record’ after you have let the cat out of the bag.

“George (Weeks) told me I was wrong and Charlie was right to print it,” Milliken added.

It became a running joke between the governor and Charlie until he died in 2011.

There are many badges of honor one gets when one lives to be 92. But dealing with death — which comes too often as friends and family succumb – isn’t one people look forward to.

Milliken lost his beloved wife, Helen, to ovarian cancer in 2012.

The couple buried their only daughter, Elaine, who died of cancer a few years before that.

Helen Milliken was a champion of women’s rights including equal pay and the right to choose. She and her husband supported the Equal Rights Amendment which passed in Michigan but didn’t gain enough support nationally to make it law.

“She fought for women’s issues and was deeply committed to them as was her husband,” he said .
“Helen also encouraged me to reach out to China and build relations there,” he said. “She was way ahead of me.”

Milliken ended up creating a sister relationship with the Sichuan Province, a relationship that went dormant after he left office.

Imagine how different things might have been in our state – amid the dramatic economic upheavals tied to autos – if other leaders had embraced that relationship started decades earlier – long before states like California and Illinois did so and reaped economic gains.

Snyder picked up where Milliken left off –traveling to China within weeks of taking office.

He’s been there several times and reopened that sister relationship with Sichuan Province last year.

Snyder also delivered a heartfelt eulogy for Helen at her funeral.

“It meant so much to me…,” Milliken said as his voice trailed off and he blinked back tears.

Detroit was also critical to Milliken who continued to try and help the city. That effort spawned an unique relationship with Young.

“When Gov. Milliken decided he wasn’t going to run for re-election the only person he told before the announcement was Mayor Young. And when Mayor Young decided he was not going to run again for mayor the only person he told before the announcement was Gov. Milliken.” Said Bob Berg, who served as press secretary to Milliken and Young at different times.

Today, Berg runs Berg Muirhead in Detroit.

“He is simply the social conscious of Michigan’s political process,” added Bill Rustem, who started as an intern with Milliken and just retired as head of strategy for Snyder.

Weeks, who pens a political column for the Traverse City Record Eagle and other northern Michigan papers, added his two cents.

“In his first State of the State message on Jan. 9 1969, he (Milliken) said: ‘It is my greatest hope that this administration will be known for its compassion, its idealism, its candor and its toughness in the pursuit of public ends.’ Strikes me his hope was realized,” said Weeks.

Family traditions

His family owned Milliken’s, which had stores in Traverse City and two other towns. Bill Milliken ran them after graduating from Yale before deciding to follow his dad and grandfather and become a state senator.

His studies were interrupted as were his marriage plans to Helen as he was called to action and flew 50 combat missions during World War II. He survived two crash landings and was awarded a Purple Heart.

He did finish college and the couple married.

For Milliken, the call to action has always been about good policy in his book, and not party politics.

Of the current U.S. Senate race between former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and Democrat Cong. Gary Peters, Milliken isn’t endorsing either –just yet.

Fast forward to 2014.

“Today politics is very mean and nasty. It just doesn’t serve the public as well as it should,” Milliken said when asked.

Of Snyder’s impact on Detroit, where he appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and the city filed for bankruptcy last summer, Milliken said, “It’s faring better than might be expected. It still has not been able to make that final breakthrough. But I do respect him for what he is doing.”

Milliken has not met current Mayor Mike Duggan but added , “I heard he is doing a good job.”
Looking to the 2016 presidential contest.

“I don’t see anyone at the moment (on the GOP side) that I could endorse,” Milliken said.

With former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looking like the Democrat to beat, could he support her?

“Sure,” said Milliken, “I do respect her and know her a little bit. I knew her husband (Bill Clinton) as we served together. She is a very confident, intelligent, committed person.”

But he is keeping his powder dry until the GOP field is settled.

When asked if he misses being governor, Milliken said, “Sometimes I do. But most of the time I don’t. It was a wonderful opportunity to serve and I loved it.”

Carol Cain the Emmy Award-winning senior producer and host of “Michigan Matters” which airs 11:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. She writes about politics and business for Detroit Free Press on Sundays. Cain is also senior producer/host of CBS62 prime time TV “Eye on the Future” specials that look at vital issues that have included “Michigan in Transition,” “Detroit’s Next Chapter,” and “Building Bridges: From the Great Lakes to the Great Wall,” and others. She can be reached at

August 22, 2014 · Filed under Carol Cain



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