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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2002

Milliken keeps fighting for GOP

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Twenty years ago, he was the recognized leader of a band of liberals and moderates who had controlled Michigan's Republican Party - and much of state government itself - for two decades.

Today, Bill Milliken, the longest-serving governor in state history, has been living in what might almost be termed political exile in his hometown, 200 miles from the state capitol. He has long been out of favor with the hard-line conservatives who captured Michigan's GOP in 1982 when he declined to run for a fourth full term.

But this summer he unexpectedly returned to the campaign trail, not for himself but for a long-shot challenger, state Sen. Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. The two aren't old friends - they didn't even know each other when Mr. Milliken was governor.

Yet Mr. Schwarz, a practicing surgeon who is a pro-choice, “pro-common-sense” candidate, early on identified himself as being in the mold of Bill Milliken, a rare Republican politician who was politically defined by a social conscience, and who did his best his entire political career to fight first for civil rights, then the city of Detroit, to the chagrin of many in his own party, who rolled their eyes at the “ghetto governor.”

That never fazed Mr. Milliken. Nor does it faze him that his candidate now isn't seen as having the ghost of a chance to win the Aug. 6 primary. And so this month, the ex-governor, still trim and incredibly somewhat boyish at 80, was stumping for long shot Schwarz, who trailed in one poll, 65 to 17 percent.

“I know the odds aren't in his favor at this point, but I don't care about that,” Mr. Milliken said over lunch last week. “Sometimes you have to take a principled stand on the issues.”

The heir to a now-defunct northern Michigan department store chain always took such stands. As a young county chairman in the early 1950s, he opposed Joe McCarthy before that was, as they say, cool.

George Romney, the former powerhouse auto executive, tapped him for lieutenant governor in 1964, and the men caused quite a stir by refusing to support the party's presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater.

They won easily, getting nearly twice as many votes as the hapless top of the ticket. Mr. Milliken, who was actually much more liberal than Mr. Romney, inherited the governorship when his boss moved on to Richard Nixon's cabinet.

There he battled huge economic problems stemming largely from the oil shocks and auto recessions of the 1970s, and built a famous “odd couple” working relationship with Coleman Young, the brawling street-wise black mayor of Detroit. Though he was at first suspicious of Mr. Milliken's efforts to help Detroit, in the end, Mr. Young said, he had been the finest and fairest governor the state ever had. The mayor even scandalized fellow Democrats by indicating, when Mr. Milliken last ran for re-election, that if Detroiters didn't want to vote against him, that was just fine.

Even as Reagan Republicans took over the national party, Mr. Milliken governed as if Abraham Lincoln was still the guiding spirit of the GOP. “I hope I will be remembered for very strong convictions about minorities, about black citizens, ethnic groups, and for very strong positions about social equality,” he says today.

However, conservatives chafed under his leadership. When he announced his retirement, he attempted to anoint a like-minded moderate, Lt. Gov. James Brickley, as his successor. But Mr. Brickley lost to a conservative tax-cutting insurance executive named Richard Headlee, perhaps best remembered for suggesting that one woman legislator he didn't like do a better job of looking in the mirror when she shaved.

“He puts me in mind of an ass,” is all Mr. Milliken said. He went home to Traverse City, and has mainly remained on the sidelines, neither endorsing Democrats or Republicans. Since his time, the GOP has turned hard right.

The former governor does admit that his fellow Republican, John Engler, has his strong points. “He really has been quite a remarkable governor in a lot of ways. He is politically astute, there's no question about that. So I give him a lot of credit for that. I just happen to disagree with him.”

Disagree, that is, on everything from style to substance.

There are those in both parties who think Mr. Milliken should give up on the GOP. But he won't. He plans to keep fighting for his vision of what the Michigan Republican Party ought to be. He may not live to see it. His candidate this time will almost certainly lose. But back when the national GOP was losing everywhere in the Watergate 1970s, Bill Milliken was elected governor of the most economically besieged state in the union three times in a row, each time by a bigger margin than the last.

And when he left office, he was far more popular than when he came in. Even if they think your philosophy is politically dead, that's not a bad epitaph.



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