Rep. Levin on retiring: ‘I just thought time had come’

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak has decided not seek re-election to a 19th term, he said Saturday.

“I just thought the time had come. I thought that I would look for other ways to carry on the efforts I’ve been involved with,” Levin said in an interview.

“I feel happy about this. I think I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to serve and represent the people in Michigan for 35 years, so I’m happy that I’ve had that opportunity.”

Levin, 86, plans to join the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the end of his term in Congress, where he expects to do some writing and teaching, he said.

“They want me to talk to the students at the school about leadership, because they say they teach and teach all these courses and want to really have students talk further about how they implement what they’ve learned,” Levin said.

“I just decided it was wise to just now give someone else the chance,” he said.

He planned to make the retirement announcement Sunday at his holiday party in Royal Oak.

Levin counts among his accomplishments in the House his push to defeat efforts to privatize Social Security and helping to rescue the auto industry with a federal bailout eight years ago. He also chaired the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee when Congress passed the federal healthcare law in 2010.

He has pursued trade issues for 25 years, working to “make sure globalization worked not only for the few but for the many,” he said.

With former Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-New York, Levin in 2007 authored what’s known as the May 10 Agreement, a bipartisan deal that put enforceable labor and environmental standards into trade agreements. Rangel retired last term.

Levin has also been involved this year in the issues surrounding the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Deal, or NAFTA, and arguing that any broad-based tax reform is focused on helping the middle class instead of than the wealthy.

“I can understand why people want to keep going if they love it, and I’ve loved public service,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said he has “respected Sandy since my earliest days in politics.”

“To have the opportunity to serve with him in Congress has been an incredible honor. Sandy isn’t just a colleague; he is a mentor and dear friend,” Kildee said.

“I will never forget that Sandy was one of the first members of Congress to come to Flint and help residents recover from the water crisis. His devotion to public service is unwavering.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, called Levin “a champion for Michigan and the working families he represents.”

“He epitomizes what it means to be a public servant, and am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve the alongside him,” Dingell said in a statement. “John Dingell and I wish him all the best and look forward to seeing all that he accomplishes in his next chapter."

Levin, an attorney by training, has represented different parts of suburban Detroit since the early 1980s, when his district included Inkster and Dearborn Heights. He frequently was forced to change districts during the redrawing of congressional district lines every decade but always survived.

Levin attributes his long, successful career in public life to the family values and strong sense of community that he learned from his parents, he said.

“I’ve had a chance to take those values, and I think that people, even if they disagreed with me, I think they’ve understood that I’ve tried to bring those values of community into the district,” Levin said.

Retirement questions swirled in recent months after Levin reported raising only $17,000 in the last reporting period and a total of $101,931 for the year.

Potential candidates

The congressman’s son, Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, is among those who could run for the seat when his father retires. Andy Levin declined to discuss the situation Saturday.

“Andy – I think he would be terrific. But he and Mary have to make that decision. He’s very much his own person,” Sandy Levin said of his son and daughter-in-law.

Another potential candidate for the seat is Democratic state Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren, who in a statement praising Levin did not indicate whether he would seek the seat.

“He is a true statesman whose selfless dedication to working class concerns and strong commitment to national security has created a legacy that will continue far past his departure from elected office,” said Bieda. “On a personal note, I've always looked up to Sandy and have appreciated his common decency and friendship.”

Kevin Howley, who ran for Oakland County executive, said he’s also considering the race.

Republicans reiterated Saturday that they intend to target the district. National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Matt Gorman said, “We look forward to aggressively competing to turn this seat red in 2018.”

Notably, Levin last won reelection by nearly 21 percentage points, and Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton won the district in the 2016 presidential contest, though President Donald Trump improved on Mitt Romney’s margins from 2012.

Republican businesswoman Candius Stearns of Sterling Heights has already declared her candidacy in the district, and on Saturday received the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden.

Zach Gorchow, editor of the political news service Gongwer, called the NRCC’s response perplexing.

“It’s a solidly Democratic district with virtually no GOP bench from with to draw,” he said. Clinton winning the district by 8 points “should signal they have no shot there.”

Lamenting breakdown of bipartisanship

Levin has been a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for almost 30 years.

He was the top Democrat on the panel from 2010 through 2016 until stepping down a year ago. He was succeeded by Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, who on Saturday called Levin a “fierce champion for workers, fighter for fair trade deals, and voice for middle class families.

“Congress will miss Sandy’s presence and guidance, and I will personally miss my esteemed colleague and friend,” Neal said in a statement.

Levin has sorely missed his younger brother Carl, a longtime U.S. senator who retired at the end of 2014. They are the longest-serving sibling duo in congressional history, covering 32 years.

“We talk almost every day. I had a button on my phone to ring up Carl. It took me a month, and maybe two months, not to push the button after he retired,” Sandy Levin said.

He laments the breakdown of bipartisanship in Washington, recalling earlier days in his congressional career when the atmosphere was more collegial.

He recalled that every third or fourth weekend, a lot of House members brought their kids to the House gym.

“I can remember (then Ohio Rep.) Rob Portman had a little canoe in the swimming pool that our kids played in, including Rob’s kids. We played basketball with our children,” Levin said.

“It was very nonpartisan. A lot of that feeling is gone. It needs to be rekindled. ... We need to very much renew the effort to get the facts and to consult broadly and to try to work together.”

Career in public service

Levin was an activist from his youth. He became president of his class at Central High School and later president of the student government at the University of Chicago, where he was active in the Students for Democratic Action, which he was elected to lead nationally in 1952.

Levin went on to earn his master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University and a law degree from Harvard University.

He got involved in the civil rights movement and voter-registration drives in the South, where he met U.S. Rep. John Lewis in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1971.

“We have a picture of me and him then, and he has lots of hair, and I have only black hair,” Levin said, chuckling because Lewis is now bald and Levin’s locks white.

Levin also organized exchanges where Southern students would come to Detroit to spend summers working in the auto industry.

He served in the state Senate from 1965-70 and twice ran unsuccessfully for governor as the Democratic nominee in the 1970s.

Before joining Congress in 1983, Levin was an assistant administrator in the U.S. Agency for International Development.

He and Vicki Schlafer were married for 50 years until her death in 2008. He married Pamela Cole in 2012.

When he retires, Levin will no longer have to commute back and forth between three places. He will cut out Washington and just go between Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Cole is a professor at Penn State University.

“This will remain home,” he said.

Jonathan Oosting contributed