TRAVERSE CITY — Former Michigan Lt. Gov. Connie Binsfeld was a pioneer for women in Michigan politics.
The longtime advocate for children, women and the environment died Sunday at age 89.
She was the first woman to hold leadership posts in Michigan’s House, Senate and executive branch. Her political groundbreaking was especially striking given her rural, northern Michigan roots, said Jason Allen, a former Michigan legislator and now senior policy adviser for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.
“I think you have to take a look at the things she did in the prism of the time,” Allen said. “Having a House leadership position in the 1970s, being a woman from up north, a Senate leadership position in the 1980s from up north, was remarkable. And then, being able to serve in the executive branch.”
Allen said he and his family visited Binsfeld Sunday afternoon at a Leelanau County assisted living facility where she was in hospice. She died hours later.
“Grandma Connie loved our kids, so it was a good thing to talk with her,” he said.
Binsfeld began her political career as a Leelanau County commissioner and was elected to the Michigan House in 1974. She served four terms there and in 1982 won a seat in the Senate, where she led the fight to ban surrogate pregnancy for pay.
She was a surprise pick as John Engler's running mate when he first sought the governorship in 1990. With polls showing him badly trailing Democratic incumbent James Blanchard, insiders predicted Engler would choose someone from the vote-rich Detroit area.
Engler instead tapped Binsfeld, a senator who shared his conservative views. They pulled off a narrow upset and were re-elected in 1994.
"It came down to wanting somebody that would truly be a partner who I could work with," Engler said. "I knew she was a very effective campaigner. She was also somebody who believed we could win."
Binsfeld served from 1991 through 1998 as lieutenant governor. Engler's triplets came to know her as "Grandma Connie." She decided to step down when Engler decided to run for a third term.
Journalist George Weeks said Binsfeld was not the first woman to become lieutenant governor, but she was the first to hold leadership positions in both the state House and Senate.
“She had a rocky background with Engler, but when she was picked, she was a good team player,” he said.
Binsfeld was known for championing children’s issues and often became the "voice of the defenseless," said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in a written statement.
“Her advocacy on behalf of Michigan children, women and families resulted in landmark laws, including domestic violence legislation that was among the nation's strongest," he wrote.
"She was tough," Weeks said. "In a picture she might look motherly, but in political reality she was a tough fighter."
Rob Ford, an Elk Rapids title company owner, recalled Binsfeld's early years as a substitute teacher at Glen Lake Middle School. Ford was a student there in the early 1970s. He described Binsfeld as an instructor who made learning fun, and Ford closely followed Binsfeld's political career.
"You couldn't be happier or prouder that someone from (Leelanau County) was leading the state," he said.
Binsfeld was known in the Senate for bringing the chamber to order with soft, rhythmic taps of the gavel that didn't end until there was silence. She said it was a trick she learned as a school teacher.
Ford, who grew up in Empire, said he enjoyed reading about Binsfeld's political success.
Allen said that Binsfeld was a lifelong mentor, coaching him early in his career on the legislative and committee process. He first met her in the mid 1980s when he was in high school and volunteered to stuff envelopes for her state Senate race.
"She was a gracious and grand person," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.