Former Lieutenant Governor Connie Binsfeld has died. A teacher from Leelanau County, she began her political career on the county commission. She went on to become one of the most respected names in Michigan politics.
Women were not too common on the Leelanau County commission in the early 1970s. The way Dixie Stephen—a young mother at the time—remembers it, the men didn’t much appreciate Connie Binsfeld.
“She really did her homework,” Stephen remembers. “In the county commission meetings, Connie’s voice was always the clear voice of reason and that wasn’t always well accepted.”
There were many Republican women in the Grand Traverse region in those days, like Stephen, who were politically active and concerned with issues such as equal pay. Traverse City native Bill Milliken was Governor and the first lady, Helen Milliken, was a staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Helen Milliken later protested the opening ceremony of the Republican National Convention when the party dropped support for the amendment from its platform.
In this environment, Connie Binsfeld attracted attention. Dixie Stephen, who later went to work for Milliken’s campaign, says she was watching and finally said something to another party activist about Binsfeld’s fitness for office. She was told, “You’re not the first one to notice.”
In 1974 Connie Binsfeld was elected to the state house to represent Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties. The election was an upset since her opponent in the primary was a native of Traverse City and a business owner with the support of the business community. Binsfeld was originally from Munising in the Upper Peninsula.
She never lost an election for state office after that.
“It was written all over her that she would go on and it certainly never surprised anyone that she became a senator,” says Stephen.
Her ability to campaign was noticed by fellow state senator John Engler when he ran for governor in 1990. It was a close race and George McManus says Binsfeld’s campaign efforts probably tipped the balance. McManus, who went on to take over Binsfeld’s seat in the Michigan Senate, believes Binsfeld visited every county in Michigan that year and allowed the GOP took back the Governor’s office.
“She would never give herself credit for that,” says McManus.
Binsfeld is remembered for her efforts to protect the environment and children and families. She wrote the Sand Dunes Protection Act in 1983. The Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame says laws she authored on domestic violence are among the toughest in the nation.
Binsfeld also kept on top of the issues facing people back home. She helped Traverse City take ownership of land once used for a state psychiatric hospital, property now known as the Grand Traverse Commons. She was also instrumental in preserving the Traverse City Opera House and the auditorium is named after.
“We had the Bill Milliken Auditorium on one end of Front Street and the Connie Binsfeld Auditorium on the other end,” remembers McManus.
Connie Binsfeld died Sunday at the age of 89.