Former state legislator finds inspiration from longtime governor

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By Tom Kirvan

On November 4, my wife and I spent a good chunk of the day walking up and down neighborhood streets in suburban Troy, performing a civic duty by encouraging residents to vote on midterm Election Day and to specifically support a state proposal to do away with gerrymandering.

We received our marching orders that day from a dedicated volunteer for the passage of Proposal 2, a woman who has spent countless hours over the past year knocking on doors and making phone calls in an effort to bring greater fairness to the electoral process.

Her work and that of other volunteers involved in the successful grassroots effort to heighten transparency and citizen involvement in the statewide redistricting process should serve as a model for how “to get things done” in a non-partisan way.

Of course, the term “non-partisan” has been virtually erased from the modern day political landscape, which is littered with lies, distrust, and outlandish attempts to sway voters through fearmongering and deception.

We should all long for the days when there were leaders like William Milliken and James Blanchard, former Michigan governors from differing political parties who worked to bridge gaps and to build trust during their respective administrations.

Plymouth attorney John Stewart, former chairman of both the House Judiciary Committee and the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, has been a longtime admirer of Milliken, the four-term governor of Michigan. Stewart, who served in the State Legislature from 2000-06, is so fond of the longest serving governor in state history that he has a bound volume of Milliken’s most acclaimed speeches while in office. He refers to it often for inspiration, just as he periodically chats by phone with the former governor, now 95 and a resident of Traverse City.

“Governor Milliken was an exceptional leader with a quiet, effective, and dignified style,” Stewart said. “He personifies honesty and integrity, and we would all do well to mirror his actions and teachings.”

In 2010, when I first came to know Stewart, he took time out from his busy law practice to call the retired governor, inviting him to visit Plymouth for the 40th anniversary of the Plymouth Community Arts Council and the 38th year since the Artrain made its way to the quaint city. The phone call offered Milliken the chance to return the favor, praising Stewart as a “rare individual” who stood for the “best things” that government had to offer during his three terms in the state House of Representatives.

Stewart, a 1967 graduate of Wyandotte Roosevelt High School, was a state spelling bee champion as a student. He has always tried to be mindful of a statement from his mother: “Always be kind and patient and you will be a winner.”

The quote is among many that line his law office, which is located in a meticulously restored historic home on Main Street in Plymouth. His collection of quotes runs the gamut from Noble Prize winners, to legendary football coaches, to political icons.

In many respects, they serve as his daily bread, offering the sustenance to feed his personal and professional soul. He is particularly found of a timeless saying from Martin Luther King Jr. “The time is always right to do what is right.”

It dovetails nicely with a quote of Stewart’s own. “I don’t have time for anything that is not based on the truth,” Stewart said.

Such a saying should be required reading for anyone in political office, where the practice of speaking the truth has become a lost art form.

A longtime Republican, Stewart ran as an independent in 2010 when making an unsuccessful bid for a State Senate seat. He switched parties after expressing his disenchantment with the direction of the G.O.P.

“I’m pro-choice and pro public education,” Stewart said at the time. “Higher education is the essence of recovery for our economy.”

A Downriver native, Stewart earned his bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University and a master of public administration from Wayne State, obtaining his juris doctor degree from the former Detroit College of Law, now known as Michigan State University College of Law. He has been in private practice for the past 41 years, principally handling probate, estate, and divorce work.

“I’m a veteran of more than a hundred divorce cases and drunk driving cases, so you have to be a positive person do to this kind of legal work,” the 69-year-old Stewart said. “In virtually every case, you are seeing people at their worst. Staying upbeat is an absolute necessity.”

On this Election Day, Stewart was in typical good spirits, recalling a time three years ago when he and his wife Beth, executive director of the Michigan Philharmonic symphony orchestra in Plymouth, accompanied former Governor Milliken to a concert at Interlochen.

“He was strong enough at the time to walk without a cane or a walker, making his way across campus for the concert that evening,” Stewart related. “About every 10 feet, he would be stopped by people wishing him well and saying ‘we wish you were still our governor.’ It was evident how much he is still revered in this state. He was the quintessential fiscal conservative who possessed a social consciousness – pro-choice, pro public education, pro environment.”

Perhaps as important, he was one of the foremost political proponents of “civility and moderation,” Stewart said of Milliken. “Milliken was known for delicate compromise and consensus.”
 

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