Frank Kelley had a uniquely close relationship with the Jewish community, and he relied heavily on two brilliant Jewish deputies in modernizing the role of his office.
Frank Kelley, the longest-serving state attorney general in Michigan history, was, as you might guess from his name, born an Irish Catholic.
But what you may not know is that throughout his life and career, he had a uniquely close relationship with the Jewish community, and he relied heavily on two brilliant Jewish deputies in modernizing the role of his office.
Kelley, who died March 5, 2021, at the age of 96, grew up in a Detroit where the racist broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin blared from many a radio, and there was a nasty streak of antisemitism among too many Irish Americans. But that wasn’t true in Frank Kelley’s home.
“My father used to say, ‘the Irish have been discriminated against for 500 years. But our Jewish neighbors have been discriminated against for 5,000 years, and yet we’ve both found freedom and opportunity in America.’” Frank said, “No slurs against Jews were tolerated,” either in their home or the rather elegant speakeasy the elder Frank Kelley ran.
That attitude helped the future attorney general when he was a teenager and got a badly needed job in retail selling men’s clothing at the old United Shirt store on Michigan Avenue, a store he remembered as being run by “a fine Jewish guy of Dutch descent named Sam Van Horn.
This was just supposed to be a temporary job during the Christmas rush. Times were hard, money was tight, and Kelley told me “that was a different era. Many customers would make antisemitic remarks, especially when they wanted to return things. That didn’t sit well with me.”
Kelley responded by saying, “Now, why are you saying that? We’re just normal people like you.”
When the owner found out about that, he told the manager “Keep the kid on for as long as he wants.”
“Consequently, I was the only Gentile retained after the Christmas rush,” Kelley told me, laughing, many years later.
But his best and most intense collaboration was yet to come. When Michigan Attorney General Paul Adams resigned to take a state Supreme Court seat in December 1961, Gov. John Swainson appointed Frank Kelley to the job, and he instantly made Leon Cohan, who was already an assistant attorney general, his chief deputy.
Cohan became his chief partner in remaking the office and redefining what the job of Michigan Attorney General should be. Until Frank Kelley, attorneys general had mostly been reactive, defending the state and its officials when they were sued. Kelley, with a strong assist from Cohan, made the office an aggressive crusader on behalf of the people.
He started a Consumer Protection Division and appointed a Jewish woman and Yale Law School graduate, Maxine Boord Virtue, to run it.
Cohan also took him on a trip to Israel in 1971, when Frank Kelley was preparing to run for the U.S. Senate. There, Kelley told me, “I had a chance to chat with four of the most impressive people in Israel — Prime Minister Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon.” He found Dayan the most impressive larger-than-life figure.
Kelley lost the 1972 election but remained Michigan’s attorney general till 1999. When Leon Cohan left to become chief counsel for Detroit Edison in 1973, Kelley elevated Stanley Steinborn, a man he had hired in 1963, to be his chief deputy, a job he kept till retiring in 1997.
“My dad taught me how to look at the world,” Kelley told me. “But I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined that his son would not only be the nation’s longest-serving attorney general but would also benefit immensely from two superb deputies who were both Jewish.”
Longtime political analyst Jack Lessenberry is the co-author of The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank Kelley (WSU Press, 2015)