“Soapy” Williams, Michigan’s Most “Winningest” Governor, Brought New Progressivism To State

Historic Quote: “Humanity has made astounding progress in every other field of human endeavor except politics.” G. Mennen Williams

At the 1960 Democratic Convention, when delegates were asked to ratify John F. Kennedy’s choice of LBJ as his running-mate, a single “no” echoed the chamber like a shot heard round the world. Williams was concerned that Johnson wouldn’t be strong enough on the issue of Civil Rights. The issue, and other progressive matters like it, was a hallmark for the Governor who was sent to the Governorship more times than anyone in Michigan history.

With 14 years of service, Bill Milliken holds the record for longest service as Governor of Michigan. But G. Mennen “Soapy” Milliken holds the title for number of terms elected. “Wolverine State” voters sent Williams to the Governor’s mansion six times (Governors had to run every two years back then), and he was credited with leading the state into the modern progressive era and he remains a hero with many who weren’t even alive during his Governorship. It’s easy to see why.

Williams’ biography, “Soapy” by John Noer said that he could say hello in 17 languages and shake hands with thousands of factory workers a day. Jim Blanchard, one of his Democratic successors, would quip “Everybody in Michigan shook his hand — twice.” He may hardly have been exaggerating. At a young age, “Soapy” heeded the advice of a local Judge to “take a person?s hand firmly when greeting them and to look that person straight in the eye at the same time.” He often impressed folks by remembering names, even if he had not seen them in years.

Furthermore, the style Williams brought signified youthfulness and uniqueness until the end of his term. Williams would always wear a green bow tie and white polka dot tie.

Willaims was born to a prominent family. The Mennen’s are part of the famous toiletrie/personal products company that is still prosperous today (think speed-stick). That gave him the early nick-name “Soapy.”

The family was also Republican. But for Willaims, the “New Deal” would change that. “I was tremendously impressed by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal,” he said. “I also had tried to work within the Republican framework, its so-called liberal side, and I didn’t see that held much promise for effective action.”

After attending Princeton University and getting his law degree from the University of Michigan, Williams would work on the Social Security Board, when the program was in it’s infancy. He became a partner in the law firm of Martha Griffiths and her husband. Griffiths would soon go on to Congress and champion the ERA..

“Soapy’s” rise would be swift One of the people he became involved with was Democratic Governor Frank Murphy. He would make Williams’ assistant Attorney General at 27, and followed Murphy to Washington when he became FDR’s AG (he would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court).

When Griffith’s asked Williams to head the Democratic Party, she recalled him a saying, “He said he didn`t want to be chairman. He wanted to be governor.” His election as Governor came at 37, came after considerable coaxing from liberals, particularly labor, who were not happy with their choices for the office. Williams upset Victor Bucknell in the primary 38-36%. But it was is defeat of incumbent Kim Sigler in the year of Truman beating back Dewey would prove the second biggest upset of the year (even more remarkable was that Michigan was going for Dewey). This was all the more improbable because Michigan had only elected one Democratic Governor since the Civil War.

Furthermore, Joseph Serwach points out that Republicans controlled the Senate 28-4, and 60 of the state’s 61 daily newspapers backed Sigler. But Williams would press the fresh and involve people who were previously “untouched by politics” and would take a solid 7% margin. And he would be beloved by them in office and one of his disciples, Phil Hart, would be his Lieutenant Governor.

g-mennen-williams-2
Williams (1911-1988) nndb.org

But first Williams had to get past some agonizingly suspenseful re-elections. His 1950 campaign over Francis Kelly came by 1,154 votes out of 1.8 million cast. In 1952, it was 8,618 votes out of 2.5 million. But by 1954, he had settled in comfortably., taking 56%. His next two races would be won with 55% and 53%.

g-mennen-williams-1956
The 1956 campaign (pastdaily.com)

Social progress became high on Williams’ list of accomplishments. He barred discrimination in both employment and housing. Republicans resisted the former in particular because of it’s burden on businesses.

And he walked the walk.

Williams appointed blacks and women to a number of positions, including making them the first Judges in the state. Mental health services, teacher salaries and school facilities were improved. He organized “citizens panels” to give the common folks means of involving themselves in issues.

Years after leaving office, Williams would proudly say “we brought people into government and government to the people.” But the Republican legislature, which sometimes operated under a 2/3 majority, meant limits. It came to ahead late in his tenure. Williams wanted to raise the corporate and income taxes but met with resistance from the Republican legislature. It is not unlike struggles that go on in the state today, yet this created a standstill which meant “payless paydays” for state workers.

1101520915_400
Time Magazine

Williams would say “tired, timid, and temporizing is a good policy for drunks, for not for politicians. “John Kenneth Galbraith would credit Williams with “a deep talent not only to compel but on occasion to repel.”

Williams’ chief accomplishment was construction of the Mackinac Bridge, which connects the UP (upper peninsula) with the rest of the state. It was at the time the longest suspension bridge in the world.

28660.preview
Williams, then 49 (www.reuther.wayne.edu)

By 1960, Williams had designs on the White House and his personal style made it easy to see why. But he lacked a national base and the budget standoff would only hamper his image. So Williams stood down and endorsed Kennedy after his win over Hubert Humphrey in the hotly contested West Virginia primary, as well as Oregon.

Kennedy would make Williams Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs where he mesmerized other nations and square danced .By 1966, Senator McNamara had died and Williams decided to succeed him. But by that time, the Williams magic had eroded. Her struggled to win the primary against the Mayor of Detroit, but lost the general to Robert Griffin 56-44%, a margin greater than had been expected.

But Williams’ career would see rehabilitation. He would be elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and become Chief Justice in 1983, serving until the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 1986. At that time, Michigan again had a Democratic Governor and he called that day `Soapy`s day”.`He died two years later at 76.

A Kennedy aide prepared a dossier on Williams during the nominating season, in which it captured his prime appeal. “Everyone seems to agree that (he) is a man of strong convictions. He takes himself very seriously and believes that he is an instrument of GOD’s will in furthering liberal, humanitarian causes. He is a devout Episcopalian and will show moving pictures of his trip to the Holy Land at the drop of a hat. Williams apparently sees himself as having been tapped to put the seran on the mount into government precision. This is not a pose but reflects a sincere, if unusual conviction.”

And Carl Levin best summarizes Williams’ his contribution, calling him, “not only a giant in the 20th Century history of the Michigan Democratic Party, the history of the state of Michigan and our nation — he was a giant ahead of his time.”

Author: SCOTT CRASS