Levin coming full circle as Senate career winds down
Washington — After 36 years, hundreds of speeches and more than 12,000 votes, Michigan's longest-serving U.S. senator, Carl Levin, is coming home.
The Detroit Democrat, who chose not to seek re-election, said he plans to return to the state when he wraps up a political career that has focused on the military, manufacturing and other issues. Levin said he is not sure what exactly he will do next, but he's ruled out lobbying and might like to teach.
"The one thing I know for sure, besides going home, is we're going to be keeping busy and hopefully being productive," Levin said during an hour-long interview in his Capitol Hill office.
He is certain he plans to spend most of his time back in Michigan, where he owns a condominium in downtown Detroit and co-owns about 95 acres in Livingston County with his brother, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, who has served with him in Congress for 32 years.
It's a desire that sets the 80-year-old senator apart from many colleagues in Washington, D.C., as he tentatively prepares to make his farewell address Thursday morning on the Senate floor.
"I'm a legislator. My strength is getting people together ... and getting into the details of programs," Levin said, explaining why he never ran for governor of Michigan or mayor of Detroit or sought to run a federal cabinet agency.
"I love this place and what this place stands for," said Levin, who has cast more votes than all but about a dozen senators in U.S. history.
Levin's decision to return home breaks the mold in the nation's capital, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"(Levin) must actually still be a Michigander," Sabato said. "Many members of Congress become Washingtonians; some even stop living in their home states, which sooner or later becomes a campaign issue. And dozens join lobbying and government relations firms on K Street when they retire or lose."
Levin, the high-profile chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the permanent subcommittee in investigations, was a key figure in the financial rescue of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC in 2008 and 2009. His clout also has helped the state and Detroit win key federal funding on dozens of major projects, including his recent help in convincing the Transportation Department to award the M-1 Rail streetcar line in Detroit another $12 million to complete the project.
His departure, along with the retirements of Michigan U.S. Reps. John Dingell of Dearborn, Mike Rogers of Howell and Dave Camp of Midland, means the state is losing influence in the nation's capital.
'Stood his ground'
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, hailed Levin's skills as a legislator.
"He has stood his ground on controversial issues and fought to give average Americans a voice. In times of crisis, Carl's voice was clear, speaking out for justice, equality and fairness," Reid said on the floor this week. "If you want something done that is foolproof — as nearly perfect as possible — bring in Carl Levin."
But Levin also has "unfortunately become part of an endangered species" of senators willing to work across the aisle on bipartisan legislation, said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the unsuccessful 2008 presidential candidate who has worked closely with Levin on the Armed Services Committee as its ranking GOP member.
Levin's legacy is one of "congeniality, consensus building," McCain told The Detroit News.
Levin, known for his rumpled look and sometimes disheveled gray hair — and often seen peering over glasses perched low on his nose — earned a reputation for questioning Defense Department contract decisions while standing up for Michigan's military facilities. He sometimes opposed the use of military force — in particular the 2002 resolution to invade Iraq.
He has "made a major contribution to the nation's security," said McCain, who disagreed with Levin on many issues but still forged an amiable working relationship.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, praised Levin's Armed Services chairmanship, "dealing with a lot of delicate issues from detainees to sexual assault to make sure that the system gets better, but we always strike a balance. Carl will missed."
Levin received more acclaim in Michigan for advocating on behalf of the Detroit automakers. He fought fuel efficiency rules that he argued discriminated against American companies and got aid to research better fuel economy technology.
He gained an appreciation for automaking while working summers for the now-shuttered DeSoto unit of Chrysler, Fordson Tractor and a Detroit-based wheel cover firm called Lyon Corp. At DeSoto, Levin tightened three screws on the right door.
"If I saw a loose screw on a different part of the door, I was told that was not my job," Levin said.
Reid noted Levin's advocacy for automakers, even though Congress in 2008 failed to directly agree to a bailout. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama tapped the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program to rescue the auto companies.
"He pressed the incoming Obama administration to support the companies with loans," Reid said. "He was vindicated — the automakers eventually bounced back because of his support."
Plays 'the long game'
Much of Levin's legacy has involved working on often arcane issues — sometimes for many years — to make legislative gains. He cites as an example allowing property owners along a Michigan wilderness trail to donate land to the federal government without specific approval from Congress.
"I'm proud of being willing to get into technical issues," Levin said. "I have tended to play the long game."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, another member of the Armed Services Committee, told The News she learned much about how to be a senator from Levin.
"He actually pays attention to what we are putting in the legislative language and he has been the essence of bipartisanship," McCaskill said. "...I hope to some day be a fraction of the kind of senator he's been."
The Senate is not likely to adjourn for the year until next week instead of the end of this week, Levin said. But he is expected to help shepherd passage of his final legislative achievement: the nearly $600 billion defense reauthorization bill named for him and his retiring counterpart in the House.
While Levin was a usually reliable vote for Democrats, he sometimes broke ranks. In 2013, Levin was one of three Democratic senators to vote against a Democrat-inspired Senate rules change to allow faster confirmation of controversial appointments.
The senator said he would change a few votes if he had the chance: He would vote today to have confirmed C. Everett Koop to be surgeon general during the Reagan administration in 1981 and would vote against Bush-appointed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in 2005. While Roberts came across as a "very reasonable, thoughtful, open-minded" legal thinker, his record has proven otherwise, Levin said.
In early 2013, Levin surprised Democrats by saying he didn't want to spend two years raising money to win re-election. It cleared the way for Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, to run for and win Levin's seat over Republican Terri Lynn Land.
"We didn't want to stick around too long," he said.
Levin is reluctant to discuss his series of big re-election victories starting in 1990 — after a tough re-election win in 1984 — for fear it will sound to some like he is boasting.
"People appreciate authenticity — knowing what you really believe (and) not talking out of both sides of your mouth...," he said. "(Voters) are willing to accept that they are not going to agree with you on a lot of issues and I think will accept people who they don't agree with as much as they'd like to if they believe those people are honest, being straight and hopefully that's the perception of me, that I am authentic."
Levin said he is not leaving the Senate because he is frustrated with the slow pace of progress in Congress. In Senate, "you have to compromise to get things done...," he said. "The minority has some power here."
But the focus in the new year will shift to Michigan, where he and brother Sander own a garage on their 95 acres of property. In that area between Fenton and Kensington, they and their families like to walk the land and clear trails.
But until the final gavel, he said he will relish every moment.
"I really love the job," Levin said. "I will love it until the last minute."
A look at Carl Levin's political career
1969-1973: Member, Detroit City Council
1974-1977: President, Detroit City Council
1978: Beats GOP U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin 52-48% to win first six-year term.
1979: Introduces first bill — to end discrimination by credit card companies.
1983: Levin wins approval of bill creating an independent evaluator to ensure the Defense Department seeks a "fly before you buy" policy for major weapon systems.
1984: Defeats former astronaut Jack Lousma 52-47% for re-election.
1988: Sponsored and won passage of legislation creating an independent and strengthened Office of Government Ethics to oversee compliance with ethics rules.
1990: Beats then-U.S. Rep. Bill Schuette for re-election, his last big contested election.
1993-94: Gets $25 million for Warren's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center as it takes lead in President Bill Clinton's Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles initiative. Also obtains $15 million for Detroit Focus: HOPE's Center for Advanced Technologies.
1995: Levin fends off a Pentagon push to shut parts of Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township. He again fought off this year an effort to defund the base's A-10 planes.
1999: Becomes a member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a premier panel.
2001-2003: Chairman of Senate Armed Forces Committee. Chair of Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
2002: Votes against use of force resolution in Iraq.
2006: Named by Time Magazine one of America's 10 best senators
2007-14: Chairman of Senate Armed Forces panel, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
2008-2009: Helps get federal aid for General Motors and Chrysler from Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama
2010: Holds hearings on Wall Street abuses
2014: Sponsors legislation to expand the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary that he helped push through in 2000 from 448 square miles to 4,300 square miles. It now has another 47 known shipwrecks and about 60 suspected shipwrecks — on top of 85 existing and suspected shipwrecks.
2014: Holds hearings on Metro Detroit aluminum storage warehouses and raises questions about commodity manipulation in the markets.
Sources: Detroit News research