Rep. Sander Levin retires but plans to keep up policy fights

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Retiring U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, waves during a Fourth of July parade earlier this year. He served 36 years in Congress -- 32 of them with his younger brother, former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit.

Washington — At the close of a 36-year career in Congress, Rep. Sander Levin has likely cast his final votes in the U.S. House. He is headed for home but not giving up the fight.

"I've so enjoyed the challenge of public policy. I'm not slowing down," said the 87-year-old Democrat from Royal Oak. 

Levin's next stop is the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, where he'll be writing, as well as co-teaching next year with the school's former dean, Susan Collins, he said. 

His continuing at full tilt doesn't surprise colleagues who know the former chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee as a tireless advocate and a cerebral policy wonk.

They say his depth on issues such as trade, health care and Social Security will be sorely missed by the institution. 

"Sandy never lost his bearings on serving the people who sent him. He was true to them and true to his service on that committee — which is one of the most bought-out committees in the whole Congress," said Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat who has collaborated with Levin since they entered Congress together in 1982.

"He never forgot the plight of working men and women in this country and how they struggle."

Levin, an attorney by training, lists among his accomplishments his push to defeat efforts to privatize Social Security and rescue the auto industry with a federal bailout.

He chaired the Ways and Means panel when Congress passed the federal health care law in 2010. He also helped develop a threshold for global international labor and environmental standards known as the May 10 Agreement — a response to the lack of enforceable standards in the North American Free Trade Agreement that he long criticized. 

Former Rep. Dave Camp, a Midland Republican who served with Levin on Ways and Means, said he and Levin treated one another the same no matter which party held the majority.

"He went to all ends and never stopped working for what he believed in. I never saw him miss a step in all the time he was on the committee," said Camp, who sat next to Levin on the dais when they held the top spots on the committee.

"Obviously, we didn’t agree on the same policy solutions to issues facing the country, but he always was willing to engage. He always came prepared and willing to discuss and talk about things. Just a tireless member of Congress."

During in his final weeks in office, Levin continued to speak out on issues he championed during his three and a half decades in Washington, including stronger labor standards in free-trade agreements and democracy in Ukraine, where he addressed the Parliament. 

He packed up his office in the Longworth House Office Building and shipped more than 300 boxes of his papers to the University of Michigan for posterity.

A few cherished items from that Longworth space will be prominently displayed in his office back in Michigan, including, of course, a photo of him with his younger brother, Carl, Levin said.

Brothers' road trip 

The Levin brothers first came to Washington in the 1940s on a solo cross-country road trip in the family car. Sandy was about 17 and Carl 15, he said.

Levin recalls running up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, visiting the top of the Washington Monument and poring over museum exhibits.

Decades later, Michigan voters sent the brothers back to Washington after years in local and state politics — Carl as president of the Detroit City Council and Sandy as a state senator and state party chairman. 

Carl was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 and Sandy to the House in 1982 — the latter following two unsuccessful bids for governor. 

The pair would go on to serve 32 years in Congress together, setting a record for the longest-serving siblings in U.S. history, ending with Carl's retirement in 2014.   

U.S. Senator Gary Peters, retiring Congressman Sandy Levin, his brother, former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and newly elected Congressman Andy Levin, son of Sandy, celebrate at the Democratic election night party.

Elected during a period of high unemployment, trade was a focus for Levin from the start. He and Kaptur traveled to Japan in 1985 to meet with leaders there and attempt to "pry" open their closed market. 

She toted a spark plug from Toledo as an example of a part that couldn't be exported to Japan. Levin later carried around a universal joint purchased in Royal Oak that couldn't be exported. 

"I had it everywhere I went. We worked very hard, but we were fighting a wall of traditional trade policy," Levin said. 

"My pitch to the Japanese was if you continue on keeping your structure and keeping out American goods, at some point the U.S. would act. And it did, but it was never an effective, comprehensive policy." 

Levin has also long pressed to address currency manipulation in U.S. trade agreements.

Inventing 'fair trade' label

"He invented the term 'fair trade.' He tried to find new words for what was going on," Kaptur said. 

Levin fought to defeat NAFTA's ratification in 1993 and today argues the recent job cuts at General Motors Co. underscore NAFTA's "grievous" flaw in relation to labor standards.

Wage suppression in Mexico led to outsourcing of vehicle and supplier production — a problem that the newly negotiated trade deal with Mexico won't fix unless officials "face up to the flaw of 25 years ago," Levin said. 

After several years, Levin's wife informed him the universal joint was tearing a hole in the pocket of his suit jackets. Staffers had it mounted in a frame as a mantle of the fight.

That frame will now go onto the office wall back in Michigan, Levin said.

"The thing about Sandy is that you know he has this depth and understanding of the complexities of trade, but he also had the ability to cut through all that and speak about it in moral, principled terms," said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, who has traveled with Levin on international delegations. 

"He always has had this ability to both grasp the detail but also understand that it's really about people."

U.S. Representative Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, chats with Judy Bateman of Huntington Woods as he walks the parade route.

Levin's easy yet "persistent" manner served him well, even in difficult or heated moments, Kaptur said. 

"He presents in a very affable, very fatherly way and has a very gracious nature," she said. 

Camp recalled a time when he was serving as chairman of Ways and Means while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. 

"He brought me a Detroit Tigers’ cap to wear to cover my bald head. He presented it to me in the committee," Camp said of Levin. "He was certainly intense about issues, but there’s also a very personable side to Sandy."

Levin's measured demeanor stands in contrast to President Donald Trump's bombastic style of governing by tweet.  

"Trump veers unpredictably from very hot to cold, and you can't put together any effective policy that way," Levin said. 

"If you just bark without knowing what's behind your bark, it can be very harmful. That's why there's deep concern among us about Donald Trump. He's a roaring populist who often goes wild." 

Levin says his public service has been rooted in family values and strong sense of community — a lesson gleaned from his parents and their household's heroes growing up: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, boxer Joe Louis and Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg. 

That focus on community drove him to co-write a 1997 law with Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio that delivers $90 million to $100 million in grants to communities annually for drug-abuse prevention efforts. 

Family was also at the heart of his six-year crusade to establish a memorial in the United States to what's known as the Holodomor genocide — a famine that killed as many as 7 million people in Ukraine in 1932-33. The memorial opened in 2015 near Union Station in Washington. 

More recently, Levin pushed back against plans by the Trump administration to deport Iraqi Christians who argue they'd be at risk for persecution. 

Levin's son, Andy, was elected to succeed him next year, ensuring the family's legacy in Washington will continue. 

"Carl and me, we came from a very close family, and we took that closeness and rather than draw a rigid wall up around, we tried to expand that feeling of community," Levin said.

"That's what Carl and I have tried to do, and I think it's what Andy will try to do, too."