TRAVERSE CITY - Former Lt. Gov. Connie Binsfeld, who championed children's issues and was the first woman to hold leadership posts in Michigan's House, Senate and executive branch, died Sunday. She was 89.
Binsfeld, who lived on Leelanau County's Glen Lake, had been in hospice care, said Suzanne Allen, a family friend and former chief of staff to state House Speaker Jase Bolger.
Binsfeld, a Republican, served two terms as lieutenant governor under former Gov. John Engler, from 1991 through 1998. She declined to run again when Engler successfully sought a third term. She also served in the state House and Senate.
"Connie lived an unbelievable full life and was successful at everything she did," Engler told The Associated Press. "She was a thoughtful, kind, generous person who just happened to make a lot of history in a rather remarkable career."
Rita Hale, chairwoman of the Alger County Republican Party, said Binsfeld remained active long after her retirement from politics, hosting events at her home with her husband even as her health was ailing.
And Hale said the Upper Peninsula can take a special note of pride in such an accomplished woman, who just happened to be born in Munising.
"I think sometimes Lansing kind of leaves us out of things, and she was actually from the Upper Peninsula and made this major contribution, so people were really aware that the Upper Peninsula was really here and we're really people," Hale said. "Sometimes they forget about us. She made sure that they didn't."
Binsfeld was a surprise pick as 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 from rural northern Michigan 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 led commissions on adoptions and the state's child welfare system. The Binsfeld Children's Commission produced 197 proposed reforms for the child welfare, many of which were enacted.
While presiding over the Senate, Binsfeld was known 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 schoolteacher.
Although known as a motherly figure - Engler said his triplet daughters called her "Grandma Connie" - she could be forceful and passionate on issues of special concern to 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 also sponsored bills on domestic violence and protection of environmentally sensitive sand dunes and served 10 years on the Great Lakes Commission.
"She was a mentor and dear friend who has left an enduring legacy," said Jason Allen, a former state senator and senior policy adviser for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Jason Allen is married to Suzanne Allen.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.