Burton Leland, a longtime public officeholder who served as “warrior” for social justice in the state House and Senate, and as a Wayne County commissioner, died Sunday morning after a long battle with cancer, his family said. He was 69.
His son, Detroit Councilman Gabe Leland, confirmed his death. His father was in hospice for recurring prostate cancer, which was diagnosed 10 years ago, he said.
“It was aggressive,” Gabe Leland said of his father’s cancer battle. “He had an opportunity to go through some radiation, and the cancer came back pretty strongly about three years ago. He fought it with chemo and hormonal therapy and more radiation. The warrior lost the last battle.
“It’s really unfortunate. He was such a brave man, a lot of passion for social justice and community service. He tried to see the best in everyone. He would go against the grain.”
It’s sad to hear of the passing of Burton Leland,” added Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans. “He passionately served the public for many years and always stood up for what he believed in. Our thoughts and prayers are with Commissioner Leland’s family and loved ones.”
Leland, a Democrat from Detroit, announced on Dec. 21 that he would resign from the Wayne County Commission effective Jan. 10, after 11 years on the board. He spent 37 years in public office, starting as a state representative in 1980. He also spent eight years in the state Senate.
The beloved statesman recommended long-time activist and popular radio personality Reggie “Reg” Davis to fill his seat.
Renowned for his dynamism, charisma, and irreverent nature, Burton was a tireless campaigner who loved knocking on doors to meet his constituents. Notably, in the early 1980s Burton passed a bill in the House that became known as the Lemon Law, a consumer advocacy law that gave car buyers a brand-new replacement if a defect was found that could not be fixed.
“Today, we lost one of Michigan’s and Detroit’s most memorable political characters,” Wayne County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak said in a statement. “Burton Leland was quirky and unfiltered, passionate and outspoken, and an outstanding public servant. He knew how to reach the people he represented and how to take good care of them.”
Leland was born and raised in Detroit, graduating from Mumford High School. He earned a business degree from Wayne State University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.
He entered politics in 1980 as a state representative. He later served in the state Senate. In 2006, he was elected to the Wayne County Commission.
Woronchak said Burton Leland was a warrior on the campaign trail “and on behalf of social justice for the most vulnerable among us.
“Most sadly, his family lost a husband and father, and I and many others lost a true and loyal friend.”