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Lessenberry: what do governors DO after they leave office?

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio
Jack Lessenberry

When Governor-elect Rick Snyder assumes the role of governor in January it will mark the end of Jennifer Granholm’s final term as Governor of Michigan.  All Things Considered Host Jenn White sat down with Michigan Radio Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry to discuss the roles of former governors in Michigan history.

Governor Granholm, being term-limited, has known since winning re-election in 2006 that she would be leaving office in January of 2011. Other governors have not had quite as much time to prepare for their lives as former-governors. “In the case of former-Governor Jim Blanchard who was defeated unexpectedly twenty years ago, it all came as sort of a shock and he had to sort of get his bearings,” says Lessenberry, “Eventually he became Ambassador to Canada and now he’s a lawyer and lobbyist, a sort of rainmaker with a big Washington law firm, brings a lot of business in, and is having a nice life.”

Gerhard “Soapy” Williams served as Governor of Michigan from 1949 – 1961 and considered running for President after leaving office. “He thought he was going to be named Secretary of State,” says Lessenberry, “He ended up becoming under-Secretary of State for African Affairs. The Kennedys didn’t think he was really up to a top-level job, but he threw himself into it and really did a good job repairing America’s relations with Africa. Subsequent to that, he got elected to the Michigan Supreme Court and served there for many years before dying in old age.”

Other stories of former-governors don’t end as happily as that of “Soapy” Williams. John Swainson, defeated in 1962 after serving only two years, also went on to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court, but was ruined by legal troubles. “He was charged with bribery, taking a bribe, and perjury, and he was acquitted of the bribery charge but convicted of perjury,” says Lessenberry, “He had to give up his seat in the court and give up his law license and spend some time in a halfway house. It was very sad. He later was rehabilitated to some degree and ran the state Historical Commission, but died quite young.”

This year, former-Governor Bill Milliken campaigned for gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder. Lessenberry says many former governors of Michigan tend to stay out of politics, but Milliken has always been a bit different. “Governor Milliken, ironically, has, in recent years, endorsed Democrats as often as he has Republicans,” says Lessenberry, “So it was a rare thing, and a pleasant thing for some Milliken Republicans to see him back out on the trail and campaigning for Rick Snyder. Of course, Governor Milliken will be 89 years old next year, so he’s up there a little bit but still active.”

Conversely, former-Governor John Engler has been relatively absent in Michigan since leaving office. While Engler hasn’t been active in state politics, Lessenberry says, “He’s still a good Republican, but he worked for EDS (Electronic Data Systems) for a while and now he’s the head of the National Association of Manufacturers and lives out of state. There’s always rumors that he’s going to come back here and run for the U.S. Senate or run for something, but he hasn’t been very visible.”    

When Michigan governors leave office, Lessenberry says they tend to keep a low profile for some time, much like former Presidents. “Presidents of the United States often sort of disappear for a while,” says Lessenberry, “They tend to keep their mouths shut. It’s only now that President George W. Bush has sort of resurfaced on the national scene almost two years after leaving office. I think to some extent that’s been the case in Michigan.”

But former governors of Michigan don’t always resurface on the Michigan political scene. “Governor Blanchard, while he maintains a home in the Detroit suburbs, lives, essentially, in Washington,” says Lessenberry, “George Romney, a very iconic governor, went off to be a member of Nixon’s Cabinet. He eventually came back to Michigan, although he was older at the time.”

Looking back at the previous governors of Michigan, Lessenberry says many of them have gone on to live elsewhere and take various jobs because they were relatively young when their time as governor ended. He says, “Governor Milliken was in his sixties. Governor Blanchard wasn’t very old at all when he was defeated. He wasn’t even fifty years old at the time. So, governors tend to be younger than senators and congressmen when they get done being governor.” Next year, Governor Granholm will turn fifty-two years old. We’ll see what’s in store for her as the newest former-governor of Michigan. 

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
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